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North Complex: Forest could take 100 years to grow back

KRCR Chico-Redding logo KRCR Chico-Redding 3 days ago Austin Herbaugh
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The North Complex, which killed 16 people and devastated Berry Creek, took scientists by surprise and left a lasting scar on the landscape.

It will take decades, maybe even a century for the forest to grow back, says Scott Stephens, a fire scientist at UC Berkeley.

“For me, it was a very personal and a sad story because I knew the forest and the people impacted there,” he said.

The UC Berkeley Professor, who has regularly worked in the area since 1991, says he couldn’t believe how quickly the fire spread from the Quincy area to Berry Creek after burning for weeks in the Plumas National Forest.

Caption: KRCR

“And then all the sudden that one night. That event is the one that is really seared in my head and how it burned from high elevation to low.”

According to Stephens, the fire did the opposite of what experts previously worried about.

Before, the concern was that a fire would start in the foothills above Oroville, then race up the canyon and threaten Quincy.

“The fire was near Quincy and actually went downhill and then ran into Berry Creek. In some ways,it was completely opposite of what many of us thought might happen.”

The fire—fueled by high winds—burned intensely, wiping out huge swaths of forest.

Stephens, who took part in a flyover documenting the burn scar from the air, says the landscape will become shrubland before trees start to grow back.

“Seed sources of those trees are gonna be largely eliminated. Most of them will revert to a shrub field so it could take 100 years or more to regenerate the forest.”

A devastating fire like the North Complex can lead to a vicious cycle of burning over and over again, Stephens says.

“We know when the shrubs grow, they can re-burn quickly. If it re-burns again in 20 years, then the whole thing’s back to shrubs again.”

He adds that replanting trees can help the forest grow back. The burn scar, however, is simply too large and would require a nearly impossible tree-planting effort.

As to what’s causing the recent devastating wildfires in California, Stephens says that climate change and forest mismanagement are both to blame.

“I’m afraid now we’re getting to a point where climate change is making the system worse—warmer, higher temperatures, less fuel moisture, all that’s true. But it’s not the dominant factor in my view. The dominant factor still is the conditions of the forest and how we might be able to change them.”

Although the situation may seem bleak, there is action that can be taken now, including large-scale controlled burns and thinning the forest,  Stephens says.

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