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Yosemite Nature Notes 46(2) (1977)


blazing sugar pine
[click to enlarge]
Blazing Sugar Pine

The Washington Burn

by Ginger Burley

On June 30, 1976, the final map of the Washington Burn was drawn. The fire was the first and largest of the Bicentennial Fire Season. It had taken the fire crews many days to control the 550 acre blaze.

The weather had been hot and windy and 9 1/2 miles of fire line had been built. The fire occurred in section 24, 1 1/2 miles north of Smoky Jack Campground at 7,500’ elevation in a forest principally of red fir and lodgepole pine.

On July 21, 1976, I made my first visit to the burned area. After talking about fire for five years, I was eager to see how a real forest fire looked. On a southwest facing slope, an area about 6 acres had burned completely. Everything was dead, only charred trunks remained standing; the ground was covered by powder-gray ash. This area was full of woodpeckers; the hairy, white-headed, and black-backed three-toed were observed on each visit along with flickers, Williamson’s and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, although not as commonly as the others. The bush chinquapin, which had formed a dense understory was already sprouting from the roots. The new green leaves created a beautiful contrast to the black earth. We saw deer and numerous deer tracks in the six acres as well as piles of fresh squirrel middens. An area which appeared dead supported a great deal of life.

The land in the remaining area was completely different. The fire had burned through the forest but the large red firs were untouched and, from a short distance away, the forest seemed quite normal.

When we walked through this forest, we were amazed at how little actually had burned. Fingers of fire had moved across the ground burning old logs and some small trees, but large areas were completely untouched. It was the type of fire I had talked about so often, a ground fire which removes small trees and fuel, and leaves the forest open and park-like.

The Washington Fire is a rewarding place to study fire . . . there is an area of intense crown fire, an area of gentle ground fire. The plants which have adapted through thousands of years of natural fires are there. The animals that depend on fire for food are there. Even in this record-breaking dry year, the forest is mostly “fire-proof.” No wide spread destruction, no new desert, no destroyed wildlife or watershed.

The Washington Burn has provided me with first hand appreciation of fire in the Sierra - a natural and usually gentle force creating the environment I live, work, and study in.



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