California wildfires: Sequoia national forest altered by fires

The Springville Building Supply clerk scoffed when I said I was on vacation in San Luis Obispo.

“The weather isn’t bad there,” he said.

Located in Tulare County, Springville is the first community big enough for a hardware store when you descend from the top of Highway 190, over 6,000 feet of elevation along the Tule River.

If you get stuck behind a slow truck or blocked by construction, it can take an hour to navigate the twisty 25-mile incline.

The rolling, oak-covered foothills of the Sierra around Springville are similar to those around Paso Robles.

I stopped at Springville Building Supply to find a door broom that the critters wouldn’t chew through. We were vacationing at a rustic place where five generations of my wife’s family have stayed.

Going back to the car, I had to mentally prepare myself for the heartbreak on the trip home.

It’s because where I was headed – ponderosis, population 52 – was an island of green surrounded by pine trees that had been burned to matches.

Lightning SQF complex fire burned a total of 174,178 acres in and around Sequoia National Forest in 2020.

The Castle Fire of 2020 (part of the SQF complex) destroyed the pine and cedar forest in the foreground while Windy Fire in 2021 swept up the mountain across the Tule River behind. Trees that were stumped threatened to fall on Route 190 as seen on June 28, 2022. David Middlecamp

Of the two fires that made up the SQF complex, the shotgun and castle fires, the castle was by far the biggest and worst. It burned through two national forests, a national monument, private lands and properties belonging to the United States Bureau of Land Management, California State Parks and Tulare County.

Firefighters fought to save Ponderosa and defend three sides of the rectangular community. Unfortunately, just down the hill, 94 residences were destroyed in the communities of Alpine Village and Sequoia Crest.

The forest fire also caused a breathtaking ecological disaster. About 10% to 14% of the world’s mature redwoods, located in 20 groves, were incinerated in a single fire.

Some of the epic red sunsets we saw in 2020 were the product of burning tree ash about 130 miles east of San Luis Obispo.

Redwood is resistant to low intensity fire but that fire was hot and at the time the state was besieged with numerous fires started by lightning. Firefighting resources were called in from as far away as Mexico.

In the past, as I drove Highway 190 from the San Joaquin Valley, the air became noticeably cooler and wetter as pine forest replaced oak above 5,000 feet.

The light grew softer as the sun filtered through the pine needles whispering in the wind.

It’s gone now.

What remains is a pointed black forest of fence posts pointing skyward.

Two years later, much of the Castle Fire burn area is still closed to public access due to the danger of falling snags.

It’s not uncommon to hear what was once a majestic ponderosa pine crashing to the ground.

Most areas burned in the 2021 fire along the Western Divide Highway are still closed. David Middlecamp

In 2021, another lightning-triggered fire burned across the Tule River watershed and across the Kern River watershed.

The windy fire consumed 97,528 acres of the Tule River Indian Tribe from the Tule River Reservation to the Sequoia National Forest and Monument.

The loss of redwoods is still counted, although firefighters were able to battle and save the popular Trail of 100 Giants redwood grove.

In total, the area devastated by the SQF Complex and Windy fires is equivalent to 425 square miles burned in two short years.

In other words, an area the size of every incorporated city in San Luis Obispo County has burned down, not once, not twice, but nearly 23 times.

Given the time it takes to produce a mature pine, the forest will never be the same in my lifetime.

A mature sequoia takes about 67 human generations to grow.

This is the most raw example of climate change that I have experienced. And it’s just one of many western forests that have suffered major losses due to wildfires.

Critics point the finger at the management of public lands, but the solution is not as simple as “more logging” or “raking the forest”.

In the case of the SQF Complex and Windy fires, the flames burned areas that were logged, grazed and crossed by roads.

Drought and bark beetle infestations had left many pines dead, with droopy, brown, dry branches.

Higher temperatures and low humidity levels plagued firefighters.

The high winds pushed the embers faster than any human intervention could stop.

In the years before the fires, grants were made to reduce the number of dead trees near communities, including land owned by my wife’s family.

Firefighters have often been able to hold lines there, but most of our public budgets go to firefighting and not forest management.

Fire season lasts year-round in parts of California as summers get hotter and drier. Firefighters are under increasing pressure. How much can we ask them?

Much of the water California depends on comes from the snowpack of the Sierra. What happens if forests no longer store water?

How long will it be before another generation can walk through this forest again?

These are some of the many questions that came to mind as I walked up the hill.

So much has changed in recent years. It will take action, not rhetorical “gotcha” games, to see things change for the better.

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David Middlecamp is a photojournalist and third-generation Cal Poly graduate who has covered the Central Coast region since the 1980s. A career that began developing and printing black-and-white film now includes a drone pilot’s license FAA certified. He also writes the historical column “Photos from the safe”.

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