Video: Researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences describe their Sept. 20 hike through the apocalyptic terrain left by this summer’s Rim Fire. The U. S. Forest Service granted the researchers limited access on the still-closed and burning Stanislaus National Forest to retrieve their scientific monitoring equipment at the confluence of the Tuolumne and Clavey rivers. Photos by Eric Holmes, Carson Jeffres and Ryan Peek. Narrators: Holmes, Jeffres and Catherine Fong.
By Carson Jeffres, Ryan Peek and Molly Ogaz
Walking into a landscape after a forest fire is always a surreal feeling. It’s a funny mix of excitement and sadness seeing what fire can do to the forest you once knew.
What’s always intriguing is the hodgepodge pattern of wildfire. Some places are burned to the point where there is pretty much nothing left except small stumps less than a foot tall. And, yet, just 50 meters away, the trees and brush are untouched by flame.
This was a recurring theme as the eight of us with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Scientists hiked down to the confluence of the Tuolumne and Clavey Rivers on Sept. 20, just over a month after the start of the huge Rim Fire – the largest wildfire to burn in the Sierra Nevada in more than a century of recordkeeping.
We had been anxiously awaiting US Forest Service permission to hike the Stanislaus National Forest’s Hamby Trail down into the Tuolumne River canyon. Researchers with the Center have been monitoring the river’s conditions for several years for a variety of studies. We wanted to retrieve data cards from our two battery-operated cameras that snapped pictures of the Tuolumne and Clavey river levels every hour. They were affixed to trees, not far from the fire’s start midway up Jawbone Ridge. Did our cameras survive the blaze?
Because the Rim Fire was still burning in upper parts of the watershed, the Forest required an escort, a hard-hatted fire officer on assignment from the Los Padres National Forest on assignment. He offered safety tips – stay below flames as winds push them uphill, fueling faster, hotter fires. He warned us that a firefighter had died in the 2004 Tuolumne Fire not far up canyon, after winds shifted quickly and burned over a previously “safe” area in less than 30 seconds.
On that scary note, we started hiking down. The trail drops 2,000 feet in 2 ½ miles, in a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. Going down we had to clear charred brush and small trees off the trail and work our way around fallen burnt trees too large to move.
Some areas were completely burned, while others remained mostly unscathed — evidence of lower intensity fire.
As we approached the confluence of rivers, it was a welcomed site to see the riparian corridor still fairly intact. Our campsite still had the oak tree shading the kitchen area.
The cameras? Our hopes sank when we saw only the blackened stump of the tree that held one of them. Then one of us noticed what appeared to be the downed camera tree resting on its side 50 yards downslope. It was perched just above the river, and the camera still attached and shooting hourly pictures. And, yes, it captured photos of the fire moving into the area, as you can see in this video narrated by Center researcher Eric Holmes:
We collected data from our water temperature and stage data-loggers in the rivers, took samples of algae and aquatic insects and measured the amount of fine sediment in pools. We plan to return by foot or raft this spring. We want to see how conditions change in response to the winter stormwater and snowmelt runoff in a watershed ravaged by fire.
The authors work for the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Carson Jeffres is field and lab director; Ryan Peek is a researcher in aquatic biology; and Molly Ogaz is a student intern helping to produce a multimedia “virtual hike” through the Tuolumne River watershed.
Further reading and viewing
Boxall, Bettina, “Rim fire’s effects likely to last for decades to come,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 2013
Open Data City, Animated map of Rim Fire, September 2013
Stanislaus National Forest, Rim Fire Incident Information System, August – September 2013
Tuolumne River Trust, First post-Rim Fire filming of Tuolumne River canyon, September 2013