Wildland Fire History — Interpreting Fire at Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Sylvia Nichols, Editor, The Sequoia Bark, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

While headlines screamed, “Ancient Giants in Danger,” park interpreters calmly explained the role prescribed burning had played in lessening the built–in threat of wildfire that existed along the southern edge of Giant Forest. Sequoia’s Buckeye Fire in October, 1988, was fought aggressively from the air as it raged up the dry, steep slope from the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River. The combination of suppression activities and prior fuel reductions through prescribed burning was effective; the ancient giants were saved.

When the highway leading to Giant Forest reopened, convoys were set up to allow visitors passage through the fire area. Interpreters were stationed at major turnouts along the road, where they gave short talks about prescribed burning and the role of fire in sequoia ecology.

This was an unusual opportunity for on–the–spot fire interpretation, but there was no difficulty in finding interpreters who were trained and ready on the subject. Each year fire is a major subject in the interpreters’ training, for seasonals and permanents. Several interpreters, taking a special interest in the subject, have received further training and volunteered for exhibit work and programs on fire.

Recently, an exhibit was installed at the Ash Mountain Visitor Center, featuring a beautifully finished cross–section of a sequoia. The rings show that the tree lived through 32 fires in its 1000 years. Ash Mountain is in the foothills below the sequoia belt, and the display has great impact by standing alone as the only actual sequoia exhibit in the Visitor Center. Since park administrative headquarters are in the same building, the display has proven very worthwhile for talks with a wide variety of scientific and media people who come to the building for appointments with other staff members.

A 1987 study found that the strongest tool for fire interpretation was the parks’ newspaper, The Sequoia Bark. The survey was conducted by the California State University–Fresno and involved a questionnaire administered randomly to 1000 visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Summarizing the findings, the author stated that the National Park Service was doing an excellent job of informing and educating visitors about the beneficial effects of fire and the fire management program. “The Bark is the major source of information, followed by ranger walks … The NPS interpretive information on fire ecology was very effective, since over four–fifths of respondents who had seen such information said that it altered their opinion concerning the role of fire.”

The newspaper was read by 84 percent of the visitors questioned. Almost three–quarters of visitors (71%) were aware that the parks had a controlled burning program. Only two percent were not aware, and 27 percent were not sure. “Forty–three percent cited the Bark as the source of their information, and 33 percent had heard about it on a ranger walk. Campfire talks were also important, informing eleven percent of those aware of fire management program.”

Every edition during the fire season had a short article on some aspect of fire, always with a photograph. Each article used a different approach, but all included a basic explanation of what prescribed buming is and why Sequoia and Kings Canyon have an active prescribed bum program.

A photograph of a naturalist talking to visitors in front of a sequoia with an old, large opening in its trunk accompanied a story on fire–scarred giants. “As you visit the sequoia groves in these parks, you’ll notice that many of the giant trees have openings in their bases … These openings are part ofthe life cycle of a giant sequoia tree and are caused by the same force that caused its beginning: fire.” The article ended with the statement, “While the National Park Service is committed to the prompt suppression of human–caused wildfire, the restoration of natural fire to the groves is an important objective of these parks.”

A description of the system of gathering data before, during and after prescribed burns was the main thrust of “Fire monitoring.” Again visitors were encouraged to learn more about the process. “If you come to one of our prescribed burns and see someone on the trail busily writing notes on a clipboard, say hello and ask how the fire is going.”

“A sequoia nursery” used the Sugarbowl Grove which was burned under prescription in 1977 to show the relationship between fire and sequoia reproduction. “The tens of thousands of young sequoias in this burned area demonstrate dramatically the degree to which sequoias depend on fire for regeneration.”

In the wake of all the media attention to fires last year, The Sequoia Bark published a longer article about Sequoia and Kings Canyon’s fire policy in a question and answer format with a large photo. This story gave some background on the history of the policy, as well as a clear statement of purpose.

In addition to statistics on newspaper readership, the Fresno State survey also supplied some demographic information, such as the fact that fifty percent of those interviewed were repeat visitors. Six percent had been to the parks six to ten times before, and 15 percent had visited the parks more than ten times.

With new and repeat visitors split half and half, the parks’ interpreters have a real challenge on their hands: how to cover the subject repeatedly for all newcomers, yet continue to educate and perhaps deepen the understanding of return visitors. Fortunately, object lessons such as scarred giants, tree rings, and sequoia seedlings make the subject continually fascinating, even to the interpreters.

Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017