At least 17 fires in 170 years have swept the same canyons, but none before as big or fast-moving
FRENCH GULCH, California––The Carr Fire, called a “wildfire tornado” by Cal Fire officials as it burned with enough intensity to create its own weather system, began about five miles where ANIMALS 24-7 social media editor Beth Clifton in 2015 photographed several deer clustered around a fire hydrant.
Erupting near French Gulch, California, on July 23, 2018, but quickly racing 25 miles eastward into the city of Redding, California, the Carr Fire had by sundown on August 2, 2018 burned more than 127,000 acres, killing six people, including two firefighters, a great-grandmother, and two toddlers, with 20 people still missing after nine others who had been reported missing were found alive.
Deer, elk, black bears, pumas
No one counted or could even crudely guesstimate the numbers of deer, elk, black bears, pumas, rabbits, squirrels, quail, and other wildlife who ran for their lives––typically alarmed sooner than humans––and often perished despite the head start that saved many.
Burrowing rodents, including ground squirrels, mice, voles, chipmunks, and snakes often survive wildfires by retreating deep into their dens until the flames pass and the surface soil cools.
Afterward, however, with little cover remaining, these species tend to be easy pickings for the first birds of prey who return to a burned-over area.
Named after the nearby Judge Francis Carr Powerhouse at the Whiskeytown dam, just east of French Gulch, and still only 37% contained at this writing, according to the Cal Fire Shasta-Trinity command unit, the blaze is known to have destroyed at least 1,060 homes, with 1,358 still at risk, razing parts of the historic mining towns of Keswick and Shasta, as well as several houses at the edge of French Gulch.
No place for Noah’s Ark
Expected to burn into mid-August 2018, the Carr Fire had even incinerated about 30 boats at the Oak Bottom Marina on the Whiskeytown reservoir, directly south of French Gulch, along with the marina itself.
At least 38,000 people were ordered to evacuate, or evacuated voluntarily ahead of the fire, including about a third of Redding, population 92,000. The Haven Humane Society, serving the Redding area from the smaller city of Anderson, 12 miles south, since 1952, on July 28, 2018 evacuated more than 200 displaced pets from one Anderson location to another.
Larger animals, mostly horses, were temporarily housed at the Tehama County Fairgrounds in Red Bluff, 32 miles south, where the 97th annual Tehama County Fair had just ended a day before the Carr Fire broke out.
Mike Warren, chief executive at the Turtle Bay Exploration Park on the south side of Redding, “took Whisper the bobcat, Loki the fox and almost 50 other [resident] animals home with them to keep them safe,” reported Jordan Cutler-Tietjen of the Sacramento Bee. Closed for several days due to the Carr Fire, the Turtle Bay Exploration Park reopened the museum portion of the facilities on July 29, 2018, offering free admission for the day.
Other animal rescues of note included the recapture of a 14-foot albino reticulated python named Eres, who escaped from temporary holding after she was evacuated from the Redding Reptiles store in Redding, and the eventual safe evacuation of Ben the Mule from the village of Igo, near the southern end of the Carr Fire area, after several days of effort.
Some good news for wildlife…
There was some good news for wildlife in Shasta County, albeit overshadowed by the magnitude of the Carr Fire.
On July 23, 2018, two days before the fire started, Shasta County senior deputy counsel Matthew M. McOmber wrote to the Animal Legal Defense Fund that the county planned to opt out of a five-year animal control contract with USDA Wildlife Services within 90 days.
ALDF “sent a letter to the county in June asking it to break its contract with Wildlife Services because it claimed some of the animals it kills are ‘species of concern,'” reported Damon Arthur of the Redding Record Searchlight.
“From 2008 to 2016, the Wildlife Services agency killed 72,385 wild animals in Shasta County,” Arthur recounted, including “481 coyotes, 57,471 red-winged blackbirds, 2,274 yellow-headed blackbirds, 61 mountain lions [pumas], 2,474 muskrats and 122 black bears.”
The ALDF argued that the wildlife killing was on a scale that should require an environmental impact statement.
13 wildfires, 1905-1985
Reportedly begun by a sparking wheel rim, after a vehicle pulling a trailer experienced a tire blowout, the Carr Fire ignited dry grass and brush near where a 2004 wildfire razed St. Rose Catholic Church, built in 1856, along with a trailer court that had housed about half of the then-residents of French Gulch.
Another wildfire hitting the other end of town at some point claimed the original French Gulch Oddfellows Hall, built in 1858.
NewspaperArchive documents wildfires imperiling French Gulch at least 13 times since a mining accident sparked a fire in 1905: in 1918, 1922, 1930, 1955, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1969, 1970, 1974, 1980, and 1985. The 1985 fire was contained with the help of the irrigation system from an illegal marijuana plantation.
We know the scene
All of those fires––and the local floods and earthslides that followed some of them––spared the landmark French Gulch Hotel, known to ANIMALS 24-7 for delicious veggie burgers.
ANIMALS 24-7 is familiar with the community––and the rapidly worsening climatic threat felt there by both humans and wildlife––because a relative has owned land there for more than 40 years.
Wildfires mark the transitions as climate change becomes habitat change.
French Gulch has experienced several such cycles, beginning long before those that NewspaperArchive records.
Founded after fire razed nearby Morrowville
Opened in 1885 after a previous wildfire burned much of the town, the French Gulch Hotel was said to have been the first business in the village of 356 people to reopen after residents were allowed to return from mandatory evacuation during the Carr Fire.
Begun as Morrowville, during the California Gold rush of 1849, the town was moved a mile east, renamed French Gulch, and rebuilt on the present site circa 1856, following an earlier wildfire.
Steep canyons funneling hot, dry summer winds have always made French Gulch vulnerable to wildfire, but the causes of the wildfires of the 19th and early 20th centuries were somewhat different from the causes today.
Stripped hillsides & flammable brush
Back then the hillsides had been stripped of useful timber, as the building material most accessible to the tens of thousands of miners and entrepreneurs who flocked to the gold fields and needed housing. Water cannon used in placer mining had severely eroded the topsoil.
Instead of woodlands, the canyons came to be covered with clump grass, a drylands evergreen called manzanita, and oily poison oak bushes.
In a time when most people cooked over open fires and steam-driven mining equipment was powered by wood and coal, minor accidents could easily become much, much worse, especially during the summer dry season.
French Gulch still exists, despite much of it having been razed at intervals rarely even as long as 25 years, because, while gold mining petered out 100 to 150 years ago in and around hundreds of ghost towns in the region, the 38 known French Gulch mines were never quite exhausted, producing more than $30 million worth of gold, according to available records.
After most of the Gold Rush-era miners gave up and left, leaving the greater portion of the former California mining country to wildlife and second-growth timber, a black man named Tom Green, born a slave, mined successfully at French Gulch with his wife and family until well into the 20th century.
The Tom Green Mine closed after Green’s death, but mines nearby were reopened by new entrepreneurs. At least one is still productive.
The 5.4-square-mile Whiskeytown Reservoir in 1963 submerged the ruins of Whiskeytown, another Gold Rush-era hamlet about halfway between French Gulch and Shasta. The gradual filling of the Whiskeytown Reservoir transformed the local ecology. The 36-mile reservoir shoreline came to be frequented by probably more deer, elk, and black bears than ever before inhabited the region, at least since the arrival of humans with firearms.
Stocked to attract recreational fishing, rainbow trout, brook trout, brown trout, largemouth bass, and kokanee landlocked sockeye salmon also attracted at least 30 nesting pairs of bald eagles and 60 nesting pairs of osprey, on average in recent years.
Evaporation from the reservoir helped to cool the air and slow drought-driven fires for more than half a century. Dense stands of tall coniferous trees thrived in hollows where the miners forty-niners had found mostly sparse woods if any, quite unlike in the region closer to the coast, dominated by giant redwoods, on the far side of the Trinity Alps.
Then came global warming, offsetting the effects of the reservoir, turning tall trees throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia into fuel for wildfires hotter and faster moving than have occurred in millennia.
The only unique aspect of the Carr Fire area was and is that the ANIMALS 24-7 team can testify first-hand about the ongoing changes that helped to cause it.
Summarized Mark Gomez, Paul Rogers, and Annie Sciacca for the Bay Area News Group, “Although California winter of 2016-17 was soaking, and ended the drought of the previous five years, the most recent winter was below average, and there are millions of tons of dead trees, brush, and grass across California. Add to that hot conditions, which have been getting increasingly hot due to climate change, particularly at night when fires in the past have died down, and the state faces a crisis.
“This year’s fire season in California is the worst in a decade,” Gomez, Rogers, and Sciacca wrote. “Through Thursday night, 289,727 acres — an area roughly 10 times the size of the city of San Francisco — had burned since January 1, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. That total is 61% more than at this time during the previous 10 years.”
More to come
Intense as the wildfires are, they are only the beginning of the changes ahead.
The tall conifer forests that grew for half a century and longer in parts of the Carr Fire zone, now reduced to smoldering stumps, may regenerate and eventually look again much as they did before the fires––or not.
Whether tall conifer forests can continue to regenerate after wildfires, as they historically have for the most part, is increasingly in question across the Northern Hemisphere.
Dramatic as it is, the Carr Fire is only one of dozens burning under similar conditions, from southern California to coastal Greece to Siberia. Hundreds of comparable wildfires now occur each and every year in the U.S. alone; thousands occur worldwide.
If the climate remains as much hotter and dryer as climatologists predict, significant portions of what is now the forested west may transition to scrubland semi-permanently dominated by chaparral, sage, manzanita, and poison oak, razed too often by fast-moving wildfires for tall trees to mature.
More frequent wildfires mean fewer living plants putting down roots to hold soil and water, more soil erosion, and an overall less congenial environment for tree growth.
Fewer trees, especially tall trees shedding needles or leaves, means less leaf mold to produce deeper, thicker, moister topsoil––and less tree canopy to shade the topsoil, inhibiting evaporation of whatever precipitation soaks into the ground instead of running off.
Grass & regrowth
Shrubbery that is usually now an early stage in woodland regrowth could become the new “climax” vegetation, succeeding the grassy stage that tends to be the first phase of regrowth after either wildfires or logging.
For a short time, a few months to few years after a wildfire, grasses take over the former forested habitat.
Temporarily, that means more for grazing animals to eat, including elk, bighorn sheep, and wild horses and bison––not in the French Gulch vicinity––where they have access to the habitat.
As chaparral, sage, and poison oak get started, among other shrubbery that typically follows the grassy stage, the habitat improves for deer, too.
More grazing and browsing animals in turn feeds more predators, such as wolves and pumas.
Not really the end of the world
But even as the burnt former woodlands feed more grazers, browsers, and their predators, habitat that was traditionally brush or grassland is also drying out, feeding fewer animals overall––and species who need tall conifer forests and/or old growth are squeezed into smaller areas, at greater risk of burning.
Wildfires like the Carr Fire are not really the end of the world, even if 100-foot walls of flame moving faster than a car can drive may look like it. Life on earth, and even the biodiversity of Shasta County, California, has survived much, much worse.
Yet such fires may be part of a transition to a very different habitat than we have known, in which unfamiliar species from warmer, dryer climates become more “native” than many of the most familiar “native” species, while “native” species find new habitat in places farther north, where they could not have survived, even as recently as when Whiskeytown disappeared beneath the reservoir surface.