Along a dirt road that winds through Blodgett Forest are countless blackened trees. It’s the charred sequel to September mosquito firethat burned tens of thousands of acres in the El Dorado and Tahoe National Forests.
When the fire began to spread through the Blodgett Forest, located just west of Lake Tahoe, searchers in the area wondered what could happen. Blodgett, which is run by Berkeley Forests, has long been a place where researchers can study different methods of land management, in part to see how best to combat wildfire risk. One example is prescribed burning, which researchers began testing at Blodgett nearly two decades ago.
Ariel Roughton, forest research manager at Blodgett, said she knew it was inevitable: one day the forest would likely face a severe fire, as much of California has done in recent times. years.
“We were hoping we were as prepared as possible,” she said. “I think we’ve seen it in some areas, but we could have done a lot more, and that will help inform our decisions going forward.”
In the aftermath of the fire, researchers said they encountered a few surprises.
During a visit in late October, Brandon Collins, senior scientist for Berkeley Forests, used a section along the dirt road as an example of an unexpected find. On one side of this road, he said, the forest had already been treated with various methods aimed at minimizing the danger of wildfire, such as reducing fuels on the forest floor. On the other side of the road lies vast untreated wilderness.
While treated areas often slow the spread of fire from an untreated area, Collins said that was not the case in this particular section. Here, the fire had continued to spread through the treated area and burn trees.
“I expected to see more green trees here because I knew we had done a really good job here,” Collins said. “To me, that reflects the seriousness of the situation.”
As researchers continue to study the effects of Mosquito Fire, they’ve shared some insights into what it can teach them and how it extends to issues facing landowners everywhere.
Too many burnt trees
Roughton said the aftermath of the Mosquito Fire posed a difficult problem for the forest. Many acres of trees have been burned in the fire, and forest managers and landowners don’t know what to do with them.
“There’s too much burnt wood that has a limited shelf life and not enough places to put it,” she said.
Typically, owners try to recoup the loss of a tree by cutting it down and selling it. Once a tree has burned down, they have about two years to cut it down. After that, according to Roughton, there’s a good chance it will start to rot and lose all value. But one increase in fire activity and severity in California in recent years forced loads of burnt wood into the market, making it a tough sell.
“There’s just a glut in the market, which means for many landowners it’s hard to find a buyer for this material,” Roughton said.
For Blodgett, profits from the sale of burned trees would generally fund forest management efforts like prescribed fires. Now, Roughton said Blodgett is missing out on the profits typically needed to support those efforts. She said it’s a problem that many property owners across California are struggling with, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
“We start to see light at the end of the tunnel and then another big, high-severity wildfire happens,” she said. “And that sets us back and starts us over again.”
Roughton noted that while this is a problem, more funding in recent years from the state has helped. However, other obstacles – such as a small workforce to do the job – make action difficult.
Last piece of this puzzle: carbon. While a living tree helps reduce carbon pollution by storing it, a rotting or burned tree will start releasing it into the atmosphere. Roughton said another pressure point is thinking about how to get burned trees cut down before the carbon is released, despite having insufficient resources to do the job.
where does the wildlife go
Spotted owls have nested in parts of Blodgett Forest for years, and there’s one in particular that researchers have loved.
Rob York, co-director of Berkeley Forests, said he never called the owl by a particular name, but forest researchers usually refer to him as the area’s “crusty old guy”.
“I’ve been here in Blodgett for 20 years, and this owl has been in Blodgett for 20 years,” York said. “It’s like he’s become this friend of mine.”
The Mosquito Fire burned down part of Blodgett that included the Owl’s Nest. Since then, no one has seen him. York said he wasn’t sure what happened to him, but researchers working in the forest are hoping for his return.
“It’s very sad for me that his house is no longer there,” York said.
There is a long history behind spotted owls and western forests, but here’s the summary: After a period of overexploitation of trees in the 1900s, owl proponents and scientists demanded protections for the spotted owl. These protections often meant leaving patches of forest alone, which meant that there was no logging. However, this also meant that treatments of these areas with methods such as tree thinning and prescribed burning were discouraged.
“Fire and forest ecologists generally disagreed with owl biologists,” said Blodgett lead scientist Collins.
But as fire after fire ravages California, Collins said those views are changing. He said the King Fire in 2014 had a particular impact on owl researchers; they saw the fire move so quickly that many animals could not escape. The area that burned in the King Fire had once housed a decades-long study of spotted owls. Collins said about half of the search area was burned in the blaze, killing owls in the process.
“It changed our understanding of risk so much,” Collins said. “Something is changing, isn’t it?” So no treatment is no change.
Collins said he suspected the Blodgett researchers’ beloved owl may have escaped as the Mosquito Fire approached because the fire was not moving as quickly. But even so, for this owl and other animals that fled, surviving the fire itself is only the first step.
“It’s not like they’re moving on,” he said. “They actually spend the majority of their time looking for another place to live rather than breeding.”
Wildfires also reduce habitable areas for animals. For spotted owls, that could mean fewer tall trees that they typically need for nesting. Collins said overall it may cause populations to decline. That’s why he wants to find other ways to protect these habitats, he said, which includes active forest management.
“It’s time to review our policies and do more active management and conserve…the most important features of this habitat,” he said. “Something to protect these great trees so that they persist through these events.”
After the mosquito fire
Thinking back to the burned patch of treated forest along the dirt road, Collins said he had questions he wanted to address in the coming months. What’s clear now, he says, is that even the treated areas aren’t completely safe.
“If you are surrounded on many sides…by more vulnerable conditions, you are still vulnerable yourself,” he said.
York said he was also thinking about this issue. One solution, he said, could be to treat “diffuse, smaller patches” or to disperse treatments over a larger area, which could help the forest as a whole.
But this is not a particularly easy fix and still requires a lot of active processing in the future of the forest.
“It’s going to take so much work,” he said.
For now, Blodgett researchers are working to see what lessons the destruction left behind by the Mosquito Fire might teach them. After all, these impacts are similar to what landowners have seen following severe wildfires across the state.
“We’re just thinking about how we can use the impacts we’ve seen on our property to help other landowners in some way, because we’re not unique,” Roughton said. “There are so many landowners in California dealing with this.”
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