The Dome Fire

This August a fire swept through the Mojave National Preserve in southern California and killed about a million Joshua trees. Let us take a moment to mourn them, along with the ancient giant sequouias that we also lost this year.

(The article has a subheading that mistakenly says “countless ancient redwoods” also died, but the article itself does not claim this, though it has a section on coastal redwoods and the fires affecting them.)

• John Branch, They’re among the world’s oldest living things. The climate crisis is killing them, New York Times, December 2020.

This lavishly illustrated article talks about all three species. I’ll just quote the part on Joshua trees, since they live pretty close to here.

Mojave National Preserve, Calif. — On the August day when fire broke out on Cima Dome in the Mojave National Preserve, the California desert already was making international headlines. The thermometer at nearby Death Valley had reached 130 degrees, the highest temperature reliably recorded on Earth.

As photos of tourists smiling at the thermometer ricocheted around the world — a paradoxical bit of gee-whiz glee on a day portending a dire future — a million Joshua trees were on fire.

Cima Dome is a broad mound, a gentle and symmetrical arc on the vast desert horizon. It is visible from the interstate connecting Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Scientists considered it home to the world’s densest concentration of Joshua trees.

“To the untrained eye or the person not familiar with this region, most wouldn’t even notice it as they go by at 90 m.p.h.,” said Todd Esque, a desert ecologist for the United States Geological Survey. “But for those who do know, this is a huge loss.”

Joshua trees—a yucca, not a tree, named by Mormon settlers—already teeter toward trouble. Their range is shrinking, and they are not well-suited to outrun the quickening pace of climate change. Scientists worry that future visitors will find no Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park, the way some worry that Glacier National Park will be devoid of year-round ice.

“It’s a possibility,” Dr. Esque said.

Now wildfires, scarcely a threat historically, are taking out huge swaths at once, aided by climate change and invasive grasses.

The Dome Fire consumed 43,273 acres and killed most of the estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees it burned, according to Mr. Kaiser, the vegetation program manager for Mojave National Preserve.

“Cima Dome was a model for where the Joshua tree could persist for the next 100 years,” Mr. Kaiser said. “It was a beautiful, lush, decadent Joshua tree forest. But they’re wiped out.”

While there are plans to replant the millions of dead with thousands of young Joshua trees, “It’ll never come back like it was,” Mr. Kaiser said. “Not with climate change.”

Joshua trees can grow more than 40 feet tall with spiky, Seussian eccentricity. They typically live about 150 years.

But their range is shrinking faster than the trees can spread to more livable climes—higher in elevation and latitude, generally. The species is thwarted by slow migration (their large seeds, once transported by ground sloths that are now extinct, do not travel far from where they fall) and the overall population appears to be aging. Even at Cima Dome, there were relatively few young Joshua trees.

Those are persistent threats, too. Humans chop down Joshua trees to make room for neighborhoods, roads, even solar farms. And with Joshua trees often sharing the landscape with ranching, invasive grasses are fueling more fires than ever.

While the Dome Fire was shocking in its scope and ferocity, it was not surprising to the scientists who know the area best. “This was just a fire waiting to happen,” said Debra Hughson, chief of science and resource stewardship at Mojave National Preserve.

For more than a century, until 2002, cattle grazed on Cima Dome. Among the legacy of livestock is invasive perennial grasses like red brome. Weirdly, though, those same grasses may have helped the Joshua tree flourish.

Young Joshua trees need a nurse plant to hide under, and the prickly, woody blackbrush—unappetizing to livestock—is a perfect partner. As cattle chomped on grass, leaving vegetation sparse enough to prevent potential fires from spreading, Joshua trees took hold on Cima Dome more than in other places.

“A lot of what we were calling a year ago ‘the largest and densest Joshua Tree forest in the world’ probably didn’t exist in the early part of the 20th century,” Dr. Hughson said.

And after cattle were banned, and the invasive grasses grew uninterrupted, “It was just waiting for a spark,” she said.

The spark came in August, with a lightning strike. With resources stretched because of so many other California fires, the Dome Fire spread uncontrolled. It jumped from Joshua tree to Joshua tree and across park roads and fire lines, fueled by winds that became swirling firenados.

In two days, the blaze had done almost unimaginable damage.

“I was preparing myself for the worst,” Mr. Kaiser said as he toured the burn area. “And it pretty much was the worst.”

8 Responses to The Dome Fire

  1. rovingbroker says:

    ” … along with the ancient coastal redwoods and giant sequouias that we also lost this year.”

    I don’t know about the Joshua trees, but the NYT has it completely wrong about the redwoods.

    BOULDER CREEK, Calif. – When a massive wildfire swept through California’s oldest state park last week it was feared many trees in a grove of old-growth redwoods, some of them 2,000 years old and among the tallest living things on Earth, may finally have succumbed.

    But an Associated Press reporter and photographer hiked the renowned Redwood Trail at Big Basin Redwoods State Park on Monday and confirmed most of the ancient redwoods had withstood the blaze. Among the survivors is one dubbed Mother of the Forest.

    • John Baez says:

      I’m glad that most of them survived!

      What did the New York Times article say about coastal redwoods that’s wrong?

      • rovingbroker says:

        “In a relative instant, countless ancient redwoods, hundreds of giant sequoias and more than one million Joshua trees perished.”

        “Countless ancient redwoods” did not perish.

        Further, on Joshua Trees, It is not unusual for them to be burned in fires, and they do recover although not well studied.

        Leary [58] suggests 3 reasons that fires were historically rarer in southwestern deserts than in other ecosystems. Vegetation spacing in the deserts did not promote fire spread. Litter and fuel levels were low in the deserts, and lastly, deserts were sparsely populated and had a reduced chance of human-caused fires. However, invasive species have changed the fuel and litter loads (see Changes in fire frequency and size with nonnatives), and human-caused fires have become more common …

        And Joshua tree seeds may be more likely to germinate after exposure to high temperatures possibly related to fire.

        Short durations of hot temperatures may increase Joshua tree germination. Germination percentages of seed, collected from several Joshua tree populations in the Mojave Desert and subjected to heat treatments, are provided below. Germination percentages for seed kept at 190 °F (90°C) for 5 minutes were significantly higher (p<0.01) than seed under control conditions

        So like many things in the natural world, it’s complicated.

      • John Baez says:

        “In a relative instant, countless ancient redwoods, hundreds of giant sequoias and more than one million Joshua trees perished.”

        “Countless ancient redwoods” did not perish.

        That’s a subtitle. The article doesn’t talk about any coastal redwoods dying in fires, though it talks about a big fire. The subtitle is indeed wrong. It may be a clumsy attempt to refer to this part of the article:

        The extinction of redwoods is hard to imagine, with a cool, soggy range still measured in the millions of acres. The fear is for the relatively few remaining old-growth trees.

        An estimated 95 percent of them were chopped down, mostly to fuel California’s building booms in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

        I hope Joshua trees grow back to replace the million that burnt! They take 60 years to reach maturity, so I won’t see it. Global warming will be much further along then, so their optimal habitat will have moved north. Maybe someone can help them.

  2. Ishi Crew says:

    I’ve only seen Joshua trees a few times

    (i hitchiked and jumped trains from texas to arizona–you could see them from the train or road or if you had a stop just walk around the desert) and i also saw them in Mexico where i went a few times.In the desert you see scorpions, lizards , rattlesnakes, road runner birds and more. Very nice and interesting but i belong in the desert as much as i belong in the sea–also interesting to see. My areas are ‘midatlantic from piedmont to appalachans–which are somewhat like Santa Cruz mtns though also different. In appalchianstyou can go from semi- arctic type areas to desert type areas in a 4 mile (very steep) walk.

    Obviously i’m pessimistic about the fate of the Joshua trees (and even coastal redwoods–or the east coast version called Eastern Hemlock. However, these are hardy trees. I’ve seen entire areas of old growth or virgin eastern hemlock forests wiped out or die off but some do persist and i also have seen a few places whiich i thought were wiped out with new small ones coming back. If they had less stress they possibly could come back—by themselves. You can’t build roads, houses, or log in these areas or it will just be a desert. I guess you can see forests on TV–maybe thats preferable. Some areas pay people to restore ecosystems at the same time they are destroying the ecosystem 100 feet away.)

    I couldn’t believe it when i heard there were fires in the coastal redwoods a few months agfo –i guess its true (i just looked it up) . Those areas in my experience were cool, humid , moist, with lots of small creeks—some with trout in them. My view was these never have fires except from lighteining strikes. But i guess drought gets them too.

    (I view eastern hemlocks as the miniature equivalent of coastal redwoods but in the east they look big (get up to 150 feet) , and live in same ‘cool moist habitats’ and are also in many cases dying off–combination of global warming and invasive pests.

    If you get a snowy winter that keeps the pests down. If you don’t, or people decide to log the hemlock forest and maybe build houses, you end up with a hot semi-desert–and the trout stream and springs are gone. along with all the frogs and salamanders. Mosquitos and ticks are back–and there’s nowhere to sit anymore–so you need to buy an air conidtioner and stay inside.

    (A lot of westerners say the east has no mountains—they call the applachians ‘hills’ (a few get over 6000 feet ) but in the west they say to be a mountain it has to be 14000 feet. (In India and Tibet 13000 feet is the valley ; mountains only occur above 22000 feet).

    According to some westerners, a tree has to be 400 feet so eastern hemlocks at 100 feet are shrubs or ornamental plants or weeds. The closest hemlock tree to here i know of i’ve seen for 10 years and is ‘out of its range’—its a ‘singularity’ (in the past there were trout here, and probably more hemlocks, but not now)–and its growing rapidly–lives on a rock next to a creek and may have grown 1 inch in 10 seems to be getting fatter but not much taller.Maybe like Einstein who hysaid was a slow learner and talker its a sslow growther

    The closest mountain to here is 1200 feet, which is the same elevation as where i used to stay in the valley where the highest moutain is 3300 feet, and you go over a few mountains you can get to valleys which are at 3000 feet with mountans at 4800 feet.

    There are Joshua trees in Mexico–likely under threat as well–had fun times there and it was fairly cheap (i’d go for 3 months and last time i did luxury class –200$ — tho that didnt last long–thanks to some people they releived me of carrying 180$ of it about 2nd day but i had 20$ hidden so i had to go back to economy class (i can sort of handle thsi–my trip to India for 3 months was done with 2$ in cash up front and then you do husiness….(eg sell your used camera and kewp going).

    I mostly hiked through as much of it as i could–i stayed away from cities, and once met some sort of big cat (not a mountain lion–had a lot of spots on it like an ocelot which are smaller like a bobcat and more common—possibly one of the rare jaguars . It was on a mountain trail and scared me so much i decided to give it ‘right of way and stepped off the trail and slipped down a small cliff –sort of got caught in tree halfway down. I had a similar experience in Alaska with a Grizzly bear–met it on a trail on a mountaintop (but it was a ‘baby bear ‘ maybe only 500 pounds—so i ran it off–played it a little song on my guitar i was carrying. i’ve found thats enough to run almost anyone or anything off. it didn’t work for the jaguar–guitar went down the cliff with me. i had told some locals i’d give them the guitar –(cash) poor ‘indigenous people’ who treated me wit a visit to their ‘home’ (in mexico you dont need a big house but you have a nice home–fruit trees (special indigeneous kinds which grow nowhere else and are a delicacy ) .

    I dont think i’d go back to mexico now –even mountain areas i went through have been taken over by cartels i heard.

    I think it’s possible Joshua trees have a chance but they may go extinct due to climate change and development–turning Nevada and Arizona and SoCal into casinos , golf courses and ‘conference nd event centers’–i’m ‘amazed’ at how many scientific/secular humanist/rationalist type groups hold their conferences in Las Vegas

    A lot of the ‘scientific rationalist’ groups consider gambling ‘irrational’ and some even worry about climate change including things like depleting the Colorado aquifier but they want people to fly to their conference and spend 400$/day so they have a water fountain at their conference with prominent biologists, physcists, philosophers, etc. in a las vegas casino.

    I wonder if any f the sceintists/skeptics/humanists’/rationalists who go to the coference go see the Joshua trees around there during break time, or just go to the casino and meet someone new…

  3. rovingbroker says:

    “The New York Times is claiming in a long, front-page story today that recent fires killed “countless ancient redwoods” in California

    The claim is false and should be immediately corrected

    There is no evidence that the fire killed even a single ancient redwood tree”

    The Redwood Trees Will Be Just Fine
    Less spectacular elements of the forest need our concern.

    But redwoods are well adapted to handle fire, as the fact that they have stuck around might suggest. A number of ecologists have since clarified that most of the redwoods in the park, although charred, will likely survive. “Fire is a natural part of the redwood ecosystem,” says Anthony Ambrose, a forest ecologist and redwood expert.

    “Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.”
    –Euripides, “Helen,” Euripides II: Four Tragedies (412 B.C.)

    • John Baez says:

      The silly part is that the article doesn’t claim any coastal redwoods died—just the subhead says “countless redwoods” died. It would be easy to fix by removing just a few words.

      I’m curious whether the subhead was read and approved by the author of the article, John Branch. I’ve found that in science magazines the headlines are often written by flunkies who value drama over accuracy. Often the authors have no control over these headlines. I despise this practice.

  4. John Baez says:

    The following is not about coastal redwoods; it’s about sequoias:

    Study: California fire killed 10% of world’s giant sequoias, Associated Press, 2 June 2021.

    SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — At least a tenth of the world’s mature giant sequoia trees were destroyed by a single California wildfire that tore through the southern Sierra Nevada last year, according to a draft report prepared by scientists with the National Park Service.

    The Visalia Times-Delta newspaper obtained a copy of the report that describes catastrophic destruction from the Castle Fire, which charred 273 square miles (707 square km) of timber in Sequoia National Park.

    Researchers used satellite imagery and modeling from previous fires to determine that between 7,500 and 10,000 of the towering species perished in the fire. That equates to 10% to 14% of the world’s mature giant sequoia population, the newspaper said.

    “I cannot overemphasize how mind-blowing this is for all of us. These trees have lived for thousands of years. They’ve survived dozens of wildfires already,” said Christy Brigham, chief of resources management and science at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

    The consequences of losing large numbers of giant sequoias could be felt for decades, forest managers said. Redwood and sequoia forests are among the world’s most efficient at removing and storing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The groves also provide critical habitat for native wildlife and help protect the watershed that supplies farms and communities on the San Joaquin Valley floor.

    Brigham, the study’s lead author, cautioned that the numbers are preliminary and the research paper has yet to be peer reviewed. Beginning next week, teams of scientists will hike to the groves that experienced the most fire damage for the first time since the ashes settled.

    “I have a vain hope that once we get out on the ground the situation won’t be as bad, but that’s hope — that’s not science,” she said.

    The newspaper said the extent of the damage to one of the world’s most treasured trees is noteworthy because the sequoias themselves are incredibly well adapted to fire. The old-growth trees — some of which are more than 2,000 years old and 250 feet (76 meters) tall — require fire to burst their pine cones and reproduce.

    “One-hundred years of fire suppression, combined with climate change-driven hotter droughts, have changed how fires burn in the southern Sierra and that change has been very bad for sequoia,” Brigham said.

    Sequoia and Kings Canyon have conducted controlled burns since the 1960s, about a thousand acres a year on average. Brigham estimates that the park will need to burn around 30 times that number to get the forest back to a healthy state.

    The Castle Fire erupted on Aug. 19 in the Golden Trout Wilderness amid a flurry of lightning strikes. The Shotgun Fire, a much smaller blaze burning nearby, was discovered shortly afterward, and the two were renamed the Sequoia Complex.

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