BVS dead trees

Dead trees are interspersed with houses in Bear Valley Springs, near Tehachapi, in this 2016 photo. The Kern County Fire Department is using grants to cut out the dead trees to avoid a massive fire. 

Courtesy of Kern County Fire Department

I thought now might be a good time to mention the dark side to the “end of California’s drought” — fire.

I know, I’m such a buzzkill.

All this rain is filling up reservoirs, replenishing our water table and reviving the ski industry but it’s also making lots and lots of grass grow all over the state.

Including around the trunks of more than 102 million dead trees in our forests.

More than 2 million of those dead trees are right here in Kern County, BTW.

Though fire experts say there are too many variables to predict whether this summer and fall will bring big fires, they all mentioned the massive and growing “fuel load.”

For the Forest Service up in the Kern River Valley, it’s all about fuel reduction right now.

Rangers are doing smaller prescribed burns in some areas and hacking away brush in others, especially around campgrounds as this will likely be a banner recreation year.

“We definitely want to get ready,” said Brian Block, ecosystem manager for U.S. Forest Service’s Kern River Ranger District. “All this water is giving us a good crop of grass, which tends to produce smaller flashy fires.

“But after the Erskine Fire, we know that some of those small, flashy fires don’t stay small.”

The Erskine Fire, propelled by fierce winds, blew through several small communities in the Kern River Valley last June destroying hundreds of homes and killing two people.

“It burned on almost no fuel,” recalled Kern Valley rancher Bruce Hafenfeld, also a director on the Kern County Water Agency. “It was like a blow torch. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that in this valley. Ever.”

Assuming weather is more stable this year, Hafenfeld said he didn’t think we would see the same kind of massive, destructive fires we’ve had in past years, even with all the growth from recent rains.

That’s because of our massive snowpack.

Even with more underbrush, Hafenfeld said, there’s just so much snow, he didn’t see things drying out until late fall. Maybe even very late fall.

“That’s just my viewpoint after 40-odd years of doing this, but I’m not a fire professional.”

Hafenfeld runs cattle all over the county from north of Kernville out to the high desert, south through the Piute range and toward the San Joaquin Valley floor along the river below the Isabella dam.

He agreed with Block that abundant grasses at lower elevations are a potentially bigger concern.

In fact, the feed is so abundant this year, there won’t be enough cattle to munch it down, Hafenfeld said.

“Most herds were depleted because of the drought,” he said. “So we have more grass than cattle.”

Predicting the severity of a fire season is just too “hit and miss,” said Kern County Fire Chief Brian Marshall.

If we continue to have these mini fronts that bring a skosh of moisture and cooler temps then things will take longer to dry out.

On the other hand “we have a LOTTA grass and a LOTTA dead trees,” he added.

So, will we or won’t we have an epic fire season following our epic drought topped off by epic precipitation?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

But Marshall’s not letting any grass grow under his department’s feet waiting to find out.

“One of the biggest area’s we’re working on right now is using grants to cut down trees in the Bear Valley Springs area,” he said. “We’re clear cutting whole areas, but there are just so many dead trees.”

Some have been dead long enough that their root systems, shallow anyway, have given up the ghost and they’re coming down even in light windstorms.

“Those trees are either gonna fall down, or burn, or we’re gonna have to take them out,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of other options.”

Meanwhile, if you think the governor’s proclamation of an end to California’s drought sealed the deal, think again.

Sure we had a good rainfall and a heavy snowpack this year, said Brian Block with the Forest Service.

“But the broader ecosystem takes more than just a year of rain to fix five years of a lack of rain,” he said. “Our aquifers are still low and the water coming in now is getting to the deeper areas but not necessarily into the plant available area.

“We won’t be getting back to what we consider a normal, happy, healthy forest right away.”

Hmmm. And I thought I was a buzz kill.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 661-395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com follow her on Twitter @loishenry or on Facebook at Lois Henry.

 

LOIS HENRY ONLINE

Read archived columns by Lois Henry at http://bakersfield.com/columnists/lois-henry.

 

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