Poppies, lupine, and oaks blooming in an area burned by the 1990 A-Rock Fire, near El Portal, CA

Poppies, lupine, and oaks blooming in an area burned by the 1990 A-Rock Fire, near El Portal, CA (photograph from April 2009)

Yesterday the Rim Fire reached an estimated 237,341 acres in size. That makes it the 4th-largest fire in California since they started keeping records in 1932. It has long since passed the record for the largest fire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada. Firefighters continued to make good progress, with containment at 80% as of last night. Even full containment doesn’t mean that the fire is out; it will continue to smolder until the first significant autumn rain or snowfall. But it will mean that firefighters don’t expect the fire to jump their containment lines and spread further.

Since the fire seems to be winding down, it might be a good time to look at some of the long-range consequences of the fire, and put it into perspective in relation to fire management, and the history of fire in this region. I’m not an expert on these matters, but several people who are experts present their views about the causes and consequences of the fire in this New York Times piece. The article includes a striking graph showing the effects of fire suppression during the last 150 years, and links to several other relevant articles. This piece from Wired describes the range of possible outcomes for the burned forest areas, and another article from SFGate covers the reasons why the fire suddenly exploded and burned 90,000 acres in two days.

As I said, I’m not an expert on fire management, but I have seen many fires during my years in and around Yosemite. I have vivid memories of the A-Rock and Steamboat fires of 1990, which closed most of the park for three weeks, and devastated the community of Foresta near the park’s western boundary. My wife Claudia and I lived in Yosemite Valley then, and she was nine months pregnant when the fires started. When she went into labor we had to get special permission to drive through the fire zone to the hospital in Sonora.

In 2008 the Telegraph Fire burned 34,000 acres outside the park near our home in Mariposa. Luckily the fire never got closer than three miles from our house, but 30 other homes were lost.

I’ve also lived in these mountains long enough to see the recovery and regrowth after fires. The next spring following the A-Rock and Steamboat fires I could see oaks and dogwoods crown-sprouting. Their roots were still alive, and shooting up new branches through the blackened soil. The spring following the Telegraph Fire brought the most spectacular poppy bloom anyone could remember to the burned areas in the Merced River Canyon, and even areas that didn’t burn got a fertilizer boost from the fire’s ash and produced a great display of flowers.

The photographs accompanying this post were all made in areas near Yosemite that were burned or fertilized by fires since 1990. After the huge, devastating Rim Fire, I hope these images will serve as a reminder that life will go on, and beauty will return to the areas that burned.

— Michael Frye

Dogwoods and ponderosa pine in fog, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Dogwoods and ponderosa pine in fog in an area burned by the 1990 Steamboat Fire, Yosemite NP, CA (photograph from May 2013)

Dogwoods in fog in an area burned by the 1990 Steamboat Fire, Yosemite NP, CA (photograph from May, 2013)

Dogwoods in fog in an area burned by the 1990 Steamboat Fire, Yosemite NP, CA (photograph from May 2013)

California poppies zigzagging across a hillside in the Merced River Canyon, Stanislaus NF, CA, USA

California poppies zigzagging across a hillside in the Merced River Canyon in an area burned by the 2008 Telegraph Fire, Stanislaus NF, CA (photograph from February 2009)

Wildflowers above the South Fork of the Merced River

Wildflowers above the South Fork of the Merced River near Hite’s Cove. This area hasn’t burned recently, but ash from the 2008 Telegraph Fire fertilized the soil and fueled spectacular poppy blooms in 2009 and 2012. (Photograph from March 2009.)

Wildflower mix—poppies, lupine, harlequin lupine, and owl's clover, near El Portal, CA, USA

Wildflower mix—poppies, lupine, harlequin lupine, and owl’s clover in an area burned by the 1990 A-Rock Fire near El Portal, CA (photograph from April 2009)

Lupines and burned manzanita after the Big Meadow Fire, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Lupines and burned manzanita after the 2009 Big Meadow Fire, Yosemite NP, CA (photograph from June 2010)

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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