Roughly 98,000 acres of the trees, shrubs and other plant life in the Rim Fire's nearly 260,000-acre footprint were burned at "high severity" over the past month, meaning very little, if anything, survived in those areas plantwise, according to a U.S. Forest Service preliminary vegetation-damage assessment.
The damage map, released this week, also shows that nearly 70,000 acres burned at "moderate" severity, which means probably between 25 and 75 percent of that has been decimated as well.
The findings seemed to contrast with a more-upbeat assessment of soil damage in the burn area released Wednesday by the federal Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team assigned to the Rim Fire. The team found only 7 percent, or nearly 18,000 acres, of the soil within the 400-square-mile burn area was significantly damaged.
"It downplays the severity of the issue," said District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt, regarding the earlier focus on soil damage.
A special community meeting held Thursday night in Sonora focused on the soil damage caused by the Rim Fire, with erosion control being a chief concern.
The BAER team's job is solely to survey the area and identify immediate risks to human life and safety, property, and natural and cultural resources before the first major storm of the season arrives, which is expected in mid-October.
Other U.S. Forest Service teams will be formed in the coming months to focus on reforestation.
Experts say the "unprecedented" above-ground destruction is the bigger long-term issue.
"It's really positive they are doing this stuff for the watershed," said environmentalist John Buckley, referring to BAER team's work. "But they're not helping people understand the magnitude of the need."
Buckley, who heads the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said the public "needs to get excited" about the devastation to help the area attract the federal dollars needed to start repairing it.
Hanvelt also stressed a "need for urgency."
"When the flames go out, people seem to forget about the new crisis that occurs," he said.
What's been lost
So, just how bad is the damage to the forest?
"In terms of total acreage of forest that was killed by the fire, we've never seen anything like it," said Hugh Safford, regional ecologist for U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region and researcher at the University of California, Davis.
At 256,895 acres - mostly in the Stanislaus National Forest - the Rim Fire isn't the biggest wildfire California has ever seen. It's ranked third behind the 2003 Cedar Fire (273,000) in San Diego County and last summer's Rush Fire (272,000) in Lassen County.
It all started Aug. 17, when, according to the U.S. Forest Service, a careless hunter let an illegal campfire get out of control in the Clavey River canyon, about five miles west of Lumsden Bridge. The fire slowly climbed the south canyon wall for the first two days, but picked up steam Aug. 19 and jumped the Tuolumne River and Highway 120.
Safford said the intensity at which the Rim Fire burned through areas makes it unique from other wildfires. On two consecutive days, it burned through 30,000 to 50,000 acres each.
The effects from this previously-unseen intensity will likely have a long-lasting impact on the scenery, Safford said, which is bad news for people who enjoyed the appearance of the tall coniferous Sierra Nevada forest.
"It's going to be a number of generations before you'll see any kind of recognizable forest cover in that landscape, particularly in the canyons," he said.
Much of the canyon landscape that burned was dominated by low-lying chaparral, like manzanita and buckbrush, that quickly grew in behind previous fires in the area, like the Stanislaus Complex, Rogge, Early and Pilot fires, Safford said.
This is typical behavior on post-fire forest landscapes and poses a threat because it can fuel future wildfires, which could further hinder long-term recovery and reforestation.
"The site gets taken over by shrubs for a long time," Safford said. "Buckbrush and manzanita have seeds whose germination is abetted by fire. When you burn them, it creates a massive germination event. But that sort of response at the scale at which the Rim Fire burned is unprecedented."
What happens next
Most of the landscape, with the exception of the 18,000 acres of soil that experienced high-severity burn damage, will likely be ready to sustain plant growth as early as next spring, according to Dave Young, a BAER team soil scientist.
This increases the level of urgency when it comes to planting trees because the rapid growth of brush and shrubs will crowd out seedlings competing for water, nutrients and sunlight.
"It's just as much of an emergency as fighting the fire, so hopefully the government will see it as an emergency and get things moving," said Dick Pland, a former Tuolumne County supervisor who also worked as resource manager for Fibreboard Corp. at the time of the Stanislaus Complex Fire in 1987.
The Stanislaus Complex Fire, at 146,000 acres, was the worst wildfire Tuolumne County had experienced prior to the Rim Fire.
Pland said salvage logging began immediately after the fire on land owned by the corporation, which later sold its property to Sierra Pacific Industries. They began reforesting by the next spring.
"It really pays to get those seedlings in the ground right away," Pland said. "Once the brush comes in and takes over you have to get rid of it, either by spraying or bulldozing, at a much greater expense."
Reforestation on public lands after the Stanislaus Complex Fire hit a snag in the late 1980s over the use of herbicides on thousands of acres of Forest Service land that had been taken over by brush and shrubs, according to Buckley, who strongly opposed the use of the chemicals because it can also kill healthy, non-problematic vegetation.
"The challenge is that it needs to be an immediate reforestation," Buckley said of the challenges ahead. "There is a super unique opportunity this fall to plant in areas where salvage logging won't be done (due to the severe destruction)."
However, Buckley also supports expediting the process for approving salvage logging, which first requires an environmental review under the National Environmental Protection Act.
Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, has pledged to introduce legislation that would temporarily relax government restrictions.
The local timber industry would like to see fast action as well.
Mike Albrecht, president of Sierra Resource Management, said salvage logging has already begun on private lands.
"We need to see that same streamlined process for the public property. Ideally, we would have equipment out working next spring," he said.
After the 1987 fire, the timber industry salvaged about 300 million board feet of burned trees - enough to build roughly 30,000 typical houses.
The Stanislaus National Forest averages about 25 million board feet harvested per year.
At Thursday's meeting, the BAER team provided few details on proposed activities to prevent flooding, landslides and other threats from soil erosion, because their report had yet to be completed.
The team must file its report Tuesday with Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski, who then has to approve the proposed "treatments" before actual work can begin.
It's recommended the work occur within one year, while monitoring of the treated areas can last up to three years.
Buckley, a former Forest Service firefighter, worked on repairs following the Stanislaus Complex Fire and said activities included falling trees on steep hillsides to create erosion barriers, restoring culverts so they wouldn't become plugged, and spreading straw from helicopters to help fortify damaged soil.
The Forest Service has assigned a National Incident Management Organization team - one of only four in existence - to assist forest officials as they begin the daunting salvage and long-term recovery efforts, according to forest spokesman Jerry Snyder.
Each "NIMO" team consists of seven Forest Service employees and comes equipped with the latest technology. Teams have also been used in other major-hazard situations, including a pine beetle infestation in northern Colorado in 2009.
Snyder said it's likely the team will be involved with the salvage effort. But, he said, it is too early to say what other roles they might play in the long-term recovery work.
Snyder said any projects related to thinning brush would be part of a comprehensive reforestation plan that will be developed in the coming months.
Joe Sherlock, a regional silviculturist for the Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region, was working on the Mi-Wok Ranger District atthe time of the Stanislaus Complex Fire.
As a silviculturist, Sherlock's job during recovery efforts partially entailed determining sites for planting, the types of trees to plant, and how to plant and maintain them.
He said a significant portion of the work was just "wandering over thousands and thousands of acres" and doing site-specific planning.
"A normal part of what we do is to go out to the site and try to evaluate which species would be most suitable to plant," Sherlock said.
Despite the massive damage caused by that fire, parts of the forest began to grow back thanks to the re-planting projects.
"Successful reforestation is a well-traveled road," Sherlock said. "People know how to do it."
The debate in the coming months of how to clean up the mess and prevent a fire like it from happening again will focus on the usual point of contention - money.
The cost for fighting the Rim Fire alone has exceeded $110 million.
Many have argued that the Forest Service doesn't have the manpower or funding to complete all the needed fire-prevention projects, including mechanical thinning and prescribed burning, aimed at reducing potential fire fuels that accumulate on the forest floor.
McClintock and timber industry advocates have called for the federal government to allow more private logging on public lands. He and others claim stricter rules have led to overgrown forests due to the decline in timber harvesting, thus contributing to the catastrophic fire danger.
And with increasing wildfire size, intensity and frequency being the trend over the past two decades, Safford warned that the worst may still be yet to come.
"We shouldn't be surprised because people have predicted this based on increasing fuels, drier summers and hotter temperatures," he said. "But what we have to do is figure out how to better manage our forests before fires happen, so we won't have to react as often."