One afternoon about ten days ago Claudia and I headed up Highway 120, west of Yosemite Valley, to check on the fall color. We found some colorful dogwoods between the Valley and Crane Flat, but west of Crane Flat most of the dogwoods were brown, scorched by the Ferguson Fire last summer. Or, to be more accurate, they had been scorched by firing operations (back burns) performed by firefighters along the road.
We decided to hike down to the Tuolumne Grove of giant sequoias. While the Ferguson Fire didn’t reach the Tuolumne Grove, the Rim Fire did in 2013. The media latched onto this story, with headlines about the fire threatening these ancient trees.
Sequoia trunks are quite fire resistant, and the giants in the Tuolumne Grove had survived many fires in their lifetimes. But 100 years of fire suppression had created a buildup of brush, logs, and smaller trees, potentially creating a ladder that could send fire into the vulnerable crowns of the sequoias.
So fire crews set up a sprinkler system, and performed firing operations in and around the grove to protect the sequoias. And that worked: the Rim Fire burned hot everywhere around the grove, but not in it, and the sequoias survived unscathed. (This L.A. Times article tells the story.)
Claudia and I had been to the Tuolumne Grove since the Rim Fire, but not in autumn. As we hiked down there ten days ago we were struck by the abundance of dogwoods. Like many trees, dogwoods crown-sprout after a fire. Unless the fire is especially hot, their roots survive, and immediately after the fire they send up new shoots from the root crown. Before the Rim Fire, the area above the Tuolumne Grove had been overgrown with white firs. Now the forest is much more open, and the dogwoods had proliferated in the newly-available sunlight. Many had grown over ten feet tall in just five years. In places the forest floor was a sea of red and yellow, filled with dogwood leaves turning color.
In the Tuolumne Grove itself we couldn’t see any sign of the Rim Fire. The dense understory of white firs was intact, with just scattered dogwoods here and there. Nevertheless, I was able to find a couple of compositions with dogwoods juxtaposed against giant sequoia trunks.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the wake of the Ferguson Fire. We saw oaks and dogwoods crown sprouting along Highway 41. I’d guess that in a few years the dogwoods in the burned areas will rebound and proliferate, bringing more abundant spring blossoms and fall colors than we’ve seen in decades.
We’ve seen beautiful spring lupine blooms following previous fires; in fact I spotted a lupine already blooming in a recently-burned area – in October! And the heart of the Ferguson Fire was in the Merced River Canyon, where, with the right amount of rain this winter, we could see an exceptional poppy bloom next spring.
As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
— Michael Frye
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, 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: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has 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.