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All Fired Up

ugust 17, 2013 the Rim Fire was sparked by a thoughtful bow-hunter using an illegal campfire, which got out of hand, and eventually grew to 257,314 acres, the largest wildfire in the recorded history of the Sierra Nevada range, and the third largest wildfire in California’s history. Only the Cedar Fire in San Diego County, and the Rush Fire in Lassen County surpass the Rim Fire in size. Fast burning, encompassing such a large area of extreme remoteness, in steep, river carved canyon country, it was impossible for firefighters to take an offensive approach. Their efforts were reduced to defense, structure protection, utilizing backfires, and saving what they could. Only Mother Nature was going put this particular fire out! And sure enough, the flames eventually ran out of fuel as the fire reached higher elevation granite slab region, and the fall rains returned – the Rim Fire was finally over.

Smoke from the Rim Fire rising over the hills, photo by Phil Akers
The historic Rim Fire still burning strong in late September 2013.

Like others, I watched helplessly as the Rim Fire tore through intimate fly-fishing drainages, creating its own weather. Pyrocumulus clouds billowed forever upward as towering flames bullied the dramatic river canyon ridges of Tuolumne, Clavey, and Cherry. This area is close to home for me, has always occupied a special place in my heart, and I have many fond memories of fishing trips here. It is a place where I regularly exercised stress management, brain fitness, and improved social interaction with Mother Nature.

 This is a normal, ho-hum view of Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Photo by Phil Akers
This is a normal, ho-hum view of Hetch Hetchy reservoir.
 Kolana Smoke, photo by Phil Akers
From the same vantage point, the view last September.

Last week, after fifteen months of closure, the public was finally allowed access – the National Forest inside the Rim zone was back open – and I wondered what to expect from a fly-fishing standpoint. The wild & scenic Tuolumne River and Cherry Creek were my favorites, containing all the bugs, including handsome nymph and midge populations, and I learned what worked at different times of the year. I knew when and where to bounce a deer-haired mouse off a granite rock, or when to use ladybugs – I have witnessed springtime ladybug hatches so thick that you couldn't take a breath without inhaling a few. Prior to Rim, this was an area of ultimate maturity. No longer the case!

Fire damage to Yosemite National Forest, Photo by Phil Akers
The Rim Fire eventually reached national park land, burning 78,895 acres of Yosemite forest.
Burnt scenery is all you get along the entire 24-mile route of Cherry Oil Road. Photo by Phil Akers
No, I did not take this shot with a black-and-white camera. Burnt scenery is all you get along the entire 24-mile route of Cherry Oil Road.

Work required me to travel into publicly off-limit Rim areas, so I had seen portions of the aftermath. Some areas faired okay, akin to a tornado graciously sparing a few blocks of homes. But other areas were a downright moonscape. Last week, my son Clayton would get his first glance at his once colorful playground. At one time during our visit, on Cherry Oil road, a few scant miles from Cherry Lake, we observed the worst of the aftermath; logging, bulldozing, and burning of massive piles of dozer debris. Numbingly staring at the scene in front of us, with a sickening sense of loss, in a prolonged moment of maudlin silence, we were speechless.

Road to Lake Eleanor, Photo by Phil Akers
The road to Lake Eleanor. Eleanor, and all other national park lakes contain only wild, self-sustaining trout.

The devastation Clayton and I witnessed further fueled our urges to demystify the effects to fishing. Having heard news of wildfires ripping through many watersheds over time, often wondering what the immediate and long term effects would pose to stream ecosystems and fishing, I never really pursued or researched it. Not directly affecting me, I would casually make note of the watershed destroyed by fire and mark it as a place to simply not visit. But Rim destroyed my stomping grounds! My weekend getaways! I am now forced to uncover, from a fishing standpoint, exactly what to expect from this historic wildfire.

Hen in Net, Photo by Phil Akers
We found some trout! First to the net after missing two.

I vividly recall in mid-September 2013, the fire still raging, the bugs and gnats were horrendous inside forested areas that had not yet burned. So much so, we were forced to wear head nets. I still don’t know what to make of this, other than these gnats, like many other forms of life, were seeking refuge from the flames and smoke. And the bugs continued their obnoxious behavior for a few weeks following the fire. I’m quite positive the trout gorged immediately following the flames.

Nice Hen , photo by Phil Akers
Some very respectable trout fell for split-wing bombers.
Wild trout, photo by Phil Akers
This is our largest catch since the fire, but even larger ones await. We both tangled with (but didn't land) nicer fish. This area offers exhilarating fly-fishing for large wild trout, that become quite belligerent when they are hooked, challenging to fight and land.

After some study, I knew the heat generated from Rim would not kill the trout, these streams are too big for that, and the fire moved fast. But I worried about how much streamside vegetation would be destroyed. Without shade, water temperatures will certainly rise, causing stress in trout, could even prove deadly over time. Loss of streamside vegetation and forbs will also cause a long term reduction of insects and soil stabilization, both very important to wild trout.

Clayton with a nice Lake Lloyd wild buck rainbow. , photo by Phil Akers
Clayton with a nice Lake Lloyd wild buck rainbow.

I worried about the smoke, which I learned can cause the greatest risk of immediate mortality. Smoke is composed of a bunch of really bad stuff; primarily carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and hydrocarbons. Ammonia and nitrates from smoke can exterminate stretches of stream ecosystems. Deadly carbon monoxide, peaks in concentration during the smoldering stage of a fire. But from what I have gathered, a high mortality rate from smoke’s toxic content can only occur if smoke lingers over water for multiple days.

Hydromulch containing binding agents such as polyacryamide (PAM) was applied by ground to prevent roadside erosion. Straw mulch was applied by helicopter to remote canyon ridges reducing sediment production by as much as 90 percent…for the first year or two. Photo by Phil Akers
Hydromulch containing binding agents such as polyacryamide (PAM) was applied by ground to prevent roadside erosion. Straw mulch was applied by helicopter to remote canyon ridges reducing sediment production by as much as 90 percent…for the first year or two.
Cherry Creek post Rim Fire. Some aerial applied straw mulch is visible on the ridges in the upper-right portion of this shot. Photo by Phil Akers
Cherry Creek post Rim Fire. Some aerial applied straw mulch is visible on the ridges in the upper-right portion of this shot.
But by far my biggest fear is more long term. Before any research, I imagined that post-fire runoff from seasonal rainfall and snowmelt would be the most damaging, washing copious amounts of silt into the streams. In a post-fire environment, soil erosion causes heavy sediment loading, altering cobble substrate, stream nutrients, and food webs. Nymphs and such, requiring strictly cobble substrate, will suffer serious and immediate consequences. The mortality rate will be nearly proportional to the amount of soil erosion immediately following a fire. The drought has helped the Rim zone in this instance. There has yet to be an epic runoff of rain and snowmelt. I will be following these watersheds closely and the hope is, thanks to the drought (weird saying that), the forest floor has had a chance to heal and reseal. So now, bring on the rain and snow!
orange meat, photo by Phil Akers
We rejoice the opening of the Stanislaus National Forest.

It is a punch to the gut when your outdoor playground is destroyed by fire. I blame many, from the thoughtful bow-hunter, the lack of controlled burns and effective forest management, extreme environmental groups and those who somehow cannot accept the idea of fire as management. It is what it is. But for the fishing, due to the effect of sediment loading to fish feeding, we will be forced to adapt to change, throw away what we have learned, modify our fly selection and approach. Having said that, we are relieved it is not a total loss, succulent honey is still swimming in the honey holes.

Some say fire is both good and bad, others say fire is neither good nor bad. Fire just plays a role in a cycle. We can only hope our paths don’t cross at the extreme end of any life cycle, somewhere in the middle is perfect…but we don’t have a choice. Clayton and I enjoyed our father-son fly-fishing experience on our first post-fire visit into our stomping grounds. For the streams and fish, there are promising signs this area will recover quickly. Although the ridges are scorched, more importantly I’ve noted a lack of riparian damage in large stretches of drainages. We believe our stomping ground dodged a worst-case scenario, but the whole thing still gets us all fired up!

Phil “Flip” Akers is a diverse angler and outdoor adventurer. For over 20 years he has backpacked, packed llamas and fly-fished the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges, venturing into the farthest reaches of our wilderness areas pursuing quality trout and solitude. He enjoys sharing his experiences including tips, techniques, outdoor cooking recipes, and storytelling. He is certified in wilderness first response and rescue including swiftwater rescue, technical rope and technical animal rescue.

 

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