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When It Comes To Saving Yosemite From Fire, Fire May Be The Solution

Noah Berger / AP Photo

Flames from the Ferguson Fire burn down a hillside in unincorporated Mariposa County Calif., near Yosemite National Park on Sunday, July 15, 2018.

Noah Berger / AP Photo

Its peak tourist season in Yosemite — but the most popular destination is eerily quiet.

There are no hikers on trails or climbers on the Valley's cliffs, because smoke from the Ferguson Fire has shut down parts of the park indefinitely.

The blaze began nearly four weeks ago, but I was already talking about fire in Yosemite this spring. That’s when I met UC Merced professor Leroy Westerling in Yosemite Valley.

Westerling said he visited Yosemite all the time during the summer while growing up. “This is actually one of my favorite places,” Westerling said.

He took me to an area not too far from Lower Yosemite Fall. Dead pine trees were all around us. “We’re looking at some pretty dense brushy sort of oak coming up here with cedars and some dead pine trees,” he said.

Westerling studies the connection between climate change and fire in the Sierra Nevada. And he’s looking some 500 years into the future. Will Yosemite be colder, warmer, or a lot hotter? Some of his predictions suggest little to no change. But the most extreme depict a Yosemite that many tourists may not like.

“In the Valley, where we are today, I think this is going to be more oak woodland kind of landscape,” Westerling said. “It’ll still be a beautiful place to visit, but it won’t look like this.”

Part of the problem is that people are used to seeing Yosemite as a lush green place. But what will visitors think if the iconic images of Yosemite Valley some day look more like an oak shrubland than a pine forest?

Yosemite fire chief Kelly Martin takes Westerling’s predictions seriously. “My job is to really look at the landscape of Yosemite and outside the park as well to say can fire be used as an effective tool,” Martin explained.

When I chatted with Martin earlier this year, she knew it would just be a matter of time before a big blaze like the Ferguson Fire would spark. She called it.

“It’s coming one way or the other,” Martin said.

The Ferguson Fire, which started on July 13 and has scorched more than 90,000 acres so far, was a perfect storm of overgrown brush and dead pine trees. And it actually started years ago, with California’s most recent drought: The lack of rain and snow allowed bark beetles to kill more than 129 million trees across the state.

To deal with all this die-off Martin says we need to change how we think about fire. She wants to discuss fighting fire with fire, and says that fire can be healthy for a forest. “I love how watching fire is a renewal agent, it’s not just a destructive agent,” she said.

Think of Yosemite like a tapestry with only some finished pieces, Martin says. Those are the areas that have already burned. The missing pieces are the places with the highest fire risk, and she wants to light these areas on purpose. That’s called a prescribed burn. It’s a practice that she says needs to be funded all across the Sierra Nevada.  

“We’re just storm chasers to these great big wildfires, which is almost $3 billion a year and the prescribed fire program might only get a tenth of that money nationwide,” Martin said.

The idea of deliberately burning the forest doesn’t make sense to many people, but Martin says if they really want the Sierra Nevada to be green and lush in the long run they’re going to have to be alright with it.

Listen and subscribe to YosemiteLand wherever you find your podcasts and find more at CapRadio.org/YosemiteLand.

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