On Sept. 3 2007 I stood on my porch in Westwood, Ca and watched as flames crawled over the mountain into Moonlight Valley. Over the next several days, news media flocked to our small mountain community as those few flames grew into the megaforest fire known as the Moonlight Fire. Reporters from many local and national news programs came to show the thousands of firefighters working to put out this blaze that consumed 65,000 acres of Plumas National Forest before it was finally contained on Sept. 15. Once the fire was contained, the media was gone. I was left wondering, what causes a mega fire and what happens after it is contained? I decided to find out.
My journey began with a ride through the burn on April 8 2008. Jason Moghaddas, Fire Ecologist of the Mount Hough Ranger District, was my guide on this educational tour. I thought the two of us a unique pair to share this ride. As I said, the fire started just outside my home town; however, Mr. Moghaddas was at the other end of this scenario. He and his wife, who was eight months pregnant at the time, were evacuated from their home in Indian Valley on Sept 5 as the fire threatened to consume their neighborhood. Our homes are about 20 miles apart through the woods, about 35 miles by highway. Jason’s home did not burn and he was allowed to return home on Sept. 12, when the evacuation order was lifted. Obviously, we both found the inferno far to close to home for comfort.
can read about defensible space and the efforts to implement these zones at www.qlg.org. Mr. Moghaddas also explained that fire has always played an important role in the overall health the forest. Some forest plants, including the Manzanita shrub and Lodgepole pine tree, actually need fire to regenerate their species. The Lodgepole pinecone is tightly sealed by resin with the seeds inside and will only open when heated by fire.
Meandering around Indian Valley, we came across a crew of men removing the burnt dead trees from a private lot. I asked Mr. Moghaddas if the same kinds of clean-up would be used on the public lands of the National Forest. His answer was yes and no. Once a fire like Moonlight has been contained, the real work begins. First, the trees that present a hazard to roads, campgrounds and private property are removed. For reasons of limited accessibility, not all areas will be able to get cleaned-up. Some areas will only be accessible by helicopter, limiting what can be removed and replanted in those areas. The outer perimeter of the burn, where the loss of plant life and burn severity was minimal, will heal on its own with little or no intervention from the forest service. The areas where removal and replanting will occur won’t be visible for some time. Mr. Moghaddas explained: “You can’t just go to Lowes and buy 250,000 seedlings of Lodgepole and Ponderosa pine trees.” Seedlings are not somewhere in storage, but seeds are. While the Moonlight Fire was still burning, seeds were being planted to grow the seedlings to replant this area. The seedlings need to be two years old before they can be planted in the burn area. In the meantime, fighting soil erosion is a primary concern. Mr. Moghaddas showed me several areas where rice straw was spread to prevent whole hillsides being washed away by the spring thaw run-off. In these areas, the severity of the burn was high and everything burned clear to the dirt, leaving nothing in these natural watersheds to prevent erosion. It became obvious to me that the healing process will be slow and that parts of the burn area will remain changed for centuries. I parted company with Mr. Moghaddas, feeling like I had just seen my own backyard for the first time. I have since spent many hours reading about fire suppression, defensible space and the human role in forest fire. I suggest anyone, who lives in or visits forested areas, take the time to read a few things at www.fs.fed.us and at www.qlg.org. There is also a very informative movie available called The Greatest Good, produced by the U.S. Forest Service, that is available for rent or sale at pbs.org.
The Plumas Fire Safe Council is an organization whose mission is “to
reduce the loss of natural and manmade resources caused by wildfire through pre-fire activities.” This organization meets monthly and the minutes and agenda can be read on their website at www.plumasfiresafe.org. I encourage everyone to visit this site. Homeowner consultation forms are available on the site. This organization helps homeowners answer critical questions about fire safety and fire insurance, such as: If your home is saved but your entire yard or acreage burned, will your insurance cover the cost of removing and replacing the dead trees? If lightning started the fire, is it an “act of God”, and therefore not covered by your policy? As a forest resident myself, this site really showed me how much I didn’t know about my own fire safety. Fire is, after all, the biggest natural disaster we face here in our Northern California home. Please visit your local fire safe council and protect yourself and your property.
I took a second ride through the burn, this time going the back way by dirt road. I just wanted to drive through the heart of the burn and take it all in. This roughly 20 mile drive from Westwood to Indian Valley is by far the best cruise to take to see the burn. It is a drive I will make again and again to monitor the healing of my forest home. You get a clear view of the difference in the severity of the burn in different areas. Seeing for yourself helps you have a clearer understanding of why fuel accumulation and fire suppression are such concerns. I found it interesting that Mr. Moghaddas’ new daughter will be able to take this ride throughout her life and see the new forest that will always the same age she is.
I ran into Theresa Winningham and her two grandsons, Sage age 3 and Cole age 5, that day, out for a first ride on their new Rhino 660. Adorable little Cole pointed up at the mountain and told me that “a big fire burned the mountain up.” Mrs. Winningham and her family lost about 7 acres to the Moonlight Fire. She was out that day showing and teaching the boys about fire. I was touched by the fact that it isn’t only the forest that is healing…..the people are healing too.