SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A fire that raged in forest land in and around Yosemite National Park has left a barren moonscape in the Sierra Nevada mountains that experts say is larger than any burned in centuries.
The fire has consumed about 400 square miles, and within that footprint are a solid 60 square miles that burned so intensely that everything is dead, researchers said.
"In other words, it's nuked," said Jay Miller, senior wildland fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service. "If you asked most of the fire ecologists working in the Sierra Nevada, they would call this unprecedented."
Smaller pockets inside the fire's footprint also burned hot enough to wipe out trees and other vegetation.
In total, Miller estimates that almost 40 percent of the area inside the fire's boundary is nothing but charred land. Other areas that burned left trees scarred but alive.
Using satellite imagery, Miller created a map of the devastation in the wake of the third-largest wildfire in California history and the largest recorded in the Sierra Nevada.
Biologists who have mapped and studied the ages and scarring of trees throughout the mountain range have been able to determine the severity and size of fires that occurred historically.
Miller says a fire has not left such a contiguous moonscape since before the Little Ice Age, which began in 1350.
In the decades before humans began controlling fire in forests, the Sierra would burn every 10 to 20 years, clearing understory growth on the ground and opening up clearings for new tree growth. Modern-day practices of fire suppression, combined with cutbacks in forest service budgets and a desire to reduce smoke impacts in the polluted San Joaquin Valley, have combined to create tinderboxes, experts say.
Drought, and dryness associated with a warming climate also have contributed to the intensity of fires this year, researchers say.
"If you had a fire every 20 years, you wouldn't have many like this or you'd never have trees that were 400 years old," Miller said.
Some areas of the Stanislaus National Forest ravaged by the Rim Fire had not burned in 100 years. Most of the land that now resembles a moonscape burned on Aug. 21 and Aug. 22, when the fire jumped to canopies and was spreading the fastest.
In Yosemite National Park, where lightning fires mostly are allowed to burn out naturally and prescribed burns mimic natural conditions, the destruction was much less.
The Rim Fire has burned 77,000 acres in wilderness areas in the northeast corner of Yosemite, but only 7 percent of that area was considered high intensity that would result in tree mortality, said Chris Holbeck, a resource biologist for the National Park Service.
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