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A forest in recovery, five years after the Rim Fire
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Corps member Jesus Lopez uses a chainsaw to remove branches on a downed tree at the Lost Claim Campground in the Stanislaus National Forest.

Driving to Yosemite National Park along State Highway 120, the devastation from the 2013 Rim Fire is impossible to miss. But, look closer and it’s clear the forest is on the mend.

The Stanislaus National Forest will take decades to restore. It is an acre by acre process of physical labor using hand tools, chainsaws and buckets of sweat.

“It’s brutal work, but honestly I love the work that we do out here,” said Corps member Patricia Saucedo. She’s one of more than 30 young men and women of the California Conservation Corps devoting this summer to undoing some of the damage from the Rim Fire. 

 “I’m interested in being a wildland firefighter, so what better experience than to (work) the aftermath of a fire.”

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Corps member Richard Estepp uses a tool called a rogue hoe to clear dead vegetation away from a recently planted tree in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The Rim Fire began Aug. 17, 2013, scorched 257,314 acres, destroyed more than 100 buildings and homes and burned more than half of the Groveland Ranger District making it the largest fire in the history of the Sierra Nevada.

“We want to reforest about 20,000 acres,” said Marty Gmelin, a silviculturist for the Stanislaus National Forest. “What is nice about partnering with the CCC is that it’s able to help increase the pace and scale of our restoration work.”

Corps members involved in the project are part of the first ever Yosemite Tent Camp where CCC crews camp for six straight months in Buck Meadows near the project sites. Corps members spend their days toiling in the summer heat using hand tools with odd names, like McLeod and Pulaski to cut away competing vegetation and help give newly planted seedlings a better chance at survival.

“All the vegetation around the seedlings absorb water,” said Corps member Ena Fayeninerowe. “It’s important work that we’re doing because we want the seedlings to grow.”

Daily, Fayeninerowe and her fellow Corps members hike to their project sites — sometimes several miles in – to reach the seedlings that are now two to three years old and barely knee-high.

“We’ll do that for about five years. By that time, the root system for the trees will be big enough to get more water before the rest of the plants,” said Gmelin.

With drier winters and more persistent drought conditions, water is at a premium. So, Corps members are also removing grown conifers. Some of the trees were killed during the fire, others are being sacrificed for the greater good of the forest. It’s why campers in the area may often hear the hum of chainsaws and the crashing thud of downed trees.

“They’re not huge trees, but the idea is that we take out those small to medium trees and let the big ones grow healthy,” said Devin Haupt, a CCC crew supervisor.

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Corps members Sydney Rowe and Dylan Lopez examine their cut on a tree in the Lost Claim Campground near Groveland. The Forest Service is removing grown trees to limit water competition and improve the forest’s health.

It is demanding and potentially dangerous work. Corps members work in teams of two and three to carefully cut and drop the trees. They then saw the trees into more manageable pieces, turning them into wood chips or setting them aside for winter burn piles.

“The work that they’re doing is invaluable,” Gmelin said. “We love what they’re doing. We think it’s a great program.”

While the Yosemite Tent Camp crews end their work this fall, the Rim Fire restoration goes on for the next 50 years. Gmelin says by then, the seedlings Corps members are now nursing will be 60 to 70 feet tall.

“We’re definitely coming back to these locations 10 to 20 years from now,” said Corps member Jose Gutierrez. “We want to see how the trees are doing… make sure they’re doing well.”