In November 2018, a forest fire ignited in the extreme drought conditions of Butte County in Northern California, tearing down the steep terrain and through small towns in a literal firestorm. By the time the Camp Fire was contained, it turned out to be the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California’s history, killing 85 people and burning 153,336 acres.
Now scientists like Joseph Stewart, an ecologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, are researching how to repair and replant the region. Some forest fires make way for new tree growth and a stronger, more resilient ecosystem. But after an intense blaze such as the CampFire, the trees may be gone for good if the super-dry conditions lead to higher seedling mortality.
“Even if there are seeds left, there’s less chance that the forest is going to be able to come back on its own,” says Stewart. His research focuses on two questions: what to plant and where — particularly after mega-fires like the Camp Fire. The devastation yields an opportunity where he and other scientists can devise strategies to bring forests back and, at the same time make them more resistant to climate change. “We’ve got a pretty challenging situation in terms of the amount of forest that is in degraded conditions right now,” Stewart says. “But the flip side of that is, there’s a lot of opportunity to learn from our efforts to repair and make our forests more resilient as we’re engaging in those efforts.”