For those property owners who want to help promote conifer reforestation in the Butte Fire burn, the chance for free seedlings is scheduled 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 24 at the UC Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden at Government Center, 891 Mountain Ranch Road in San Andreas. For more information call the UC Cooperative Extension office in Sonora at (209) 533-5695.

Jack Bennett is a master gardener with tens of thousands of dead trees on his 65-acre property off Jesus Maria Road, in the middle of the 110-square-miles charred by the Butte Fire megablaze almost 2.5 years ago.

“It used to be nice montane foothill forest,” Bennett said Thursday. “Doug fir, cedar, ponderosa and sugar pine. Average tree age 175 years. The last fire in there was 70 years ago. But that was a ground fire. This was a crown fire, burning through the tops of the trees. Much more destructive.”

At the gate to his place, hundreds of standing dead trees crowd the creek drainage downslope from the gravel-paved road.

“All those dead trees are basically deadfall,” Bennett said. “They’re already starting to break up at the tops of the trees. That debris ends up on the ground, and it inhibits regeneration of the conifers and enables the oaks and brush that are coming in. Some oaks are already three feet tall.”

Reforesting in the Butte Fire burn is why more University of California Cooperative Extension master gardeners, working with the Calaveras Resource Conservation District, Cal Fire and other agencies, are planning to distribute up to 1,500 ponderosa, sugar pine and giant sequoia seedlings next month in San Andreas.

They plan to give them out to Calaveras County landowners who lost trees to the Butte Fire or to tree mortality associated with drought stress and beetle infestation, says Debbie Powell, a master gardeners coordinator based in Sonora.

Regrowth is happening

Bev Vierra is another master gardener who lives near the Butte Fire burn off Rail Road Flat Road. She says she will be on hand March 24 in San Andreas to give instructions on how to plant and grow the ponderosa, sugar pine and giant sequoia seedlings into tall trees.

“It’s important to note we’ll be limiting the give-away to 10 seedlings each,” Vierra said Thursday sitting on her porch while hummingbirds flitted and darted for position at a feeder hanging close by. “These type of seedlings are best planted in fall. This time of year they have to be irrigated or put in gallon pots.”

Vierra said she bought her place in 1988 and she’s been there full-time since 1992, and she’s been a master gardener for 20 years. She also used to be president of the Glencoe Rail Road Flat Fire Protection District before it merged with Mountain Ranch to form Central Calaveras Fire and Rescue Protection District.

She said the Butte Fire burned within 800 feet of her property in the Jack Nelson Creek watershed that flows to Esperanza and the Calaveras River. She remembers the day the blaze broke out in Amador County and she said she realized if the fire jumped Highway 26 it would burn all the way to the town of Mountain Ranch.

Vierra also said she’s watched regrowth in the 1988 Rail Road Flat Fire footprint.

“It happened just before we bought the property,” Vierra said. “Regrowth in the Rail Road Flat burn has been about a foot a year. Oaks get a head start because their roots and stumps don’t die. Conifers like ponderosa, sugar pine and gray pine have come in, too. This is without irrigation, natural reforestation.”

Some forest areas will look different

Vierra emphasized there’s a caveat. Reforestation is happening in the Rail Road Flat burn and in the Butte Fire burn scar, but where oaks were already growing, they come back faster and the oaks shade out the conifers, which take longer to regenerate.

“Now in the Rail Road Flat burn some areas that used to be more conifers are now more oak woodland,” Vierra said. “Property owners, if they want to encourage conifers, they need to manage oak growth and other shrubbery like buck brush, deer brush and manzanita.”

Vierra said she’s confident the whole Butte Fire can reforest like the Rail Road Flat burn has on its own.

“But mankind has a responsibility to manage nature,” Vierra said. “If we want conifer forest we have to manage encroaching plants like oak and manzanita and others that are choking out the conifers.”

Vierra said these days she can spot old logging areas in the area because they’re basically carpeted with live oak, manzanita and deer brush.

This is called succession, Bennett said later in a phone interview. If his land and other areas scorched by the Butte Fire are not replanted with conifers, it will all grow back as oak woodland, the same mix of oaks, manzanita, deer brush and buck brush. It will no longer be montane conifer forest.

Burn in transition

The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015 near Charamuga Ranch in Amador County and blew up into Calaveras County, where it burned 70,868 acres, destroyed more than 920 structures including 549 homes, and killed two residents who declined to evacuate.

The fast-moving fire burned a lot of existing oak woodland at lower elevations west of Mountain Ranch, as well as hilltops and watersheds dominated by conifers like those on Bennett’s property.

A Butte Fire burn severity map dated Sept. 28, 2015 shows high burn intensities near Jesus Maria, Wet Gulch, Mexican Gulch and multiple other watersheds in the north side of the burn area.

Adam Frese, a division chief and forester with Cal Fire’s Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit in San Andreas, said Thursday that regrowth in the Butte Fire area has been going pretty much as expected: sprouting oaks and shrubs are occupying the burned areas.

“I have seen ponderosa and gray pine natural regeneration in some areas as well,” Frese said. “One unique challenge related to the Butte Fire is the amount of timberland in the Butte Fire area that has been converted from timberland to marijuana cultivation.”

Shortly after the Butte Fire was declared contained Oct. 1, 2015, a Post Fire Emergency Watershed Response Team that included foresters, GIS specialists, water resource engineers, geologists, fish and wildlife biologists and state water quality control board staff warned that water-repellent soils in high-severity burn areas would lead to increased erosion.

That came to pass in spades last winter, as near-record precipitation and runoff wreaked havoc on many unpaved, canyon-bottom roads in the Butte Fire burn.

Hazardous materials in the Butte Fire burn include naturally occurring asbestos, the watershed response team’s report noted. The presence of mines, mine tailings and waste suggested that mercury may be present in the burn area.

How healthy the Butte Fire burn area is right now, and how well the earth is recovering from the blaze depends on which experts you ask.

Regardless of all the homes that burned up, and whatever unnatural compounds entered multiple creeks and watersheds in the wake of post-fire storms, there were full-throated frogs croaking so loud Thursday in roadside bodies of water they could be heard from vehicles moving 45 miles per hour on Rail Road Flat Road.

Other wildlife evident Thursday included multiple buzzards floating on updrafts above pockets of standing dead forest.

Bennett said he plans to invest in the future at his place. He said he intends to clear the dead trees and replant to see the return of montane conifer forest. He’s already had a contractor out with a masticator armed with jaws to chew up small trees and brush.

In the meantime his place is in danger of burning again. All the dead standing fuel means another fire in the same area would be at least as bad or worse than the Butte Fire itself.

“Nature is slow,” Bennett said. “We’re not going to live to see the difference. It will take 40 years before there’s forest there again.”

Bennett said he’s focused on clearing 20 acres first, and he hopes to have it cleared by the end of this year.

“Oak woodlands are more similar to the chaparral mix,” Bennett said. “That kind of ecosystem is much more susceptible to fire, more flammable, more huge fire danger. It’s more flammable than healthy montane conifer forest.”

Many property owners in the Butte Fire burn cannot afford to cut out all the dead trees on their lands. County, Caltrans and utility efforts over the past two years have focused on hazard trees that threaten roads, power lines and homes. That leaves hundreds of thousands of dead trees still standing.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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