On the first day of California's lightning siege, thunderstorms rolled over the Mojave National Preserve, cutting the afternoon sky with dry blows.

Smoke rose from the top of the Cima Dome, marking the start of a wildfire that would devastate the heart of one of the largest Joshua Tree forests in the world.

A drive down Cima Road that a few weeks ago was a journey through a magical landscape is now a tour of the largest Joshua Tree cemetery in the world.

Most of the charred trees are still standing. In the evening light, its burned-bleached leaves take on an uncanny beauty. But they are doomed and the 43,273 acres of the dome fire will be forever transformed.

"This stand of so many tall trees has been developing for thousands of years," said Todd Esque, a US Geological Survey research ecologist who studied the forest. "We're not going to replace that."

The August 15 dome fire was no surprise. In 2005, around 1 million acres of Mojave burned, including part of the nature reserve southeast of the Cima Dome.

“We expected it. We've talked about it for years, ”said Debra Hughson, the reserve's science and resources director.

Fire has emerged as the greatest threat to the Mojave in the past few decades. The relentless spread of invasive grasses in the desert makes them more flammable and increases the number and size of forest fires in ecosystems that rarely burn and are ill-suited to flame survival.

Drew Kaiser and J.T. Sohr stands near a blackened Joshua tree in the Mojave National Preserve.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

When fire captain J.T. Sohr and a handful of motor crews reached the source of smoke that rose above the Cima Dome that Saturday afternoon. The wind pushed the approximately 70 hectare fire in all directions.

The temperature was in the mid-1990s – hot for the dome's 5,000-foot height. The relative humidity was mid-teens. The summer monsoon season, which typically falls about half of the region's rainfall, was a bust. The vegetation was dry.

The fire chewed into wilderness areas that firefighters could not reach. A little more help arrived on Saturday evening. However, with lightning fires erupting across California, Sohr's initial requests for additional assistance went unanswered. He pulled the small group of 16 firefighters back and they lay down for the night.

By noon the next day, the fire had risen to 15,000 acres. Winds at 20 mph continued to drive flames through Joshua trees and a tale of native shrubs and grass studded with red bromine, an ubiquitous invader.

A team of six smoke jumpers from Redding arrived on Sunday, along with a helicopter, additional engines and a few air tankers. The fire began to die out on the third day when the wind subsided and the flames hit rocky areas. On August 20th, half an inch of rain fell on the burn. The 68 square mile fire was contained on August 24th.

An old adobe bunkhouse on Valley View Ranch was on fire when the dome fire swept through part of Mojave National Preserve.

An old adobe bunkhouse on Valley View Ranch was on fire when the dome fire swept through part of Mojave National Preserve.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The fire burned more than 1.3 million Joshua trees, an old adobe bunkhouse at Valley View Ranch, and a historic ranch house and outbuildings at Kessler Springs Ranch.

"It could have been a lot worse," said the reserve's superintendent Mike Gauthier, noting that vast expanses of the Joshua Tree forest remained untouched.

Conservation botanist Drew Kaiser estimates that about a quarter of the vast Cima Dome Joshua tree forest, which extends north of I-15 beyond the sanctuary boundaries, was destroyed.

But this neighborhood is what some desert lovers consider to be one of their favorite places on the planet.

“I lost the center of my world last week. I feel a kind of dizziness in my soul, ”said Chris Clarke of the National Parks Conservation Assn. wrote in a blog post after the fire.

He shared how he has camped on the dome for more than two decades, relieving the stresses of city life and personal problems as stars move across the desert sky.

"There is something about this landscape that is really primal to people," said Esque. "I get a rush when I see it."

It will be "a bit scary" to see the fire firsthand as he reviews his research plans.

Although the Cima Dome forest is known as the largest Joshua Tree forest in the world, Esque and another researcher have documented larger and thicker populations elsewhere in the Mojave.

The dome forest, however, is characterized by its size and density, which, according to scientists, may not be entirely natural.

"This dense Joshua Tree forest might actually be a pasture artifact," said Hughson.

She cites two photos taken in the same place. In the first, there are no Joshua trees from the early 1900s. There are many in the 2000 photo.

Debra Hughson, Chief Science Officer at Mojave National Preserve, talks about the environmental impact of the dome fire.

Debra Hughson, Chief Science Officer at Mojave National Preserve, talks about the environmental impact of the dome fire.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The pasture that began in the region in the late 19th century and lasted until the reserve was established by the California Desert Conservation Act of 1994 left lasting marks on the desert.

Hooves disturbed the ground. What the animals liked or didn't eat changed the vegetation. Seeds from foreign annual grasses, intentionally and accidentally introduced by settlers, trampled on cattle they carried across the area.

On the dome, cattle chewed on native perennial grass, but left the native black brush, one of the most flammable plants in the desert, alone. Blackbrush also acts as an important nursery plant for Joshua tree seeds, shading and hiding them from hungry rodents.

In this way, conservationists theorize that grazing cattle helped create the dome's unusually thick Joshua trees – but also set the stage for last month's fire.

Hughson and Kaiser have no early reports to prove this, but they believe that grazing has transformed the dome from a more open savannah of native grasses with large old Joshua trees to dense Joshua woodland overgrown with a mix of native shrubs was. Pile of grass and invasive red bromine.

"The fire would not have burned so hot if it had not been overgrazed and had no increased amount of fuel," said Kaiser.

A less intense fire would have been less catastrophic. Of the estimated 1.33 million Joshua trees burned, fewer than 200,000 are crowned with green leaves and have a chance of survival, according to Kaiser.

"The Joshua Tree Forest was unsustainable," said Hughson.

Now, she added, "What we fear and avoid" is to see the charred desert floor turn into a permanent carpet of red bromine that keeps fueling more and more fires.

    Drew Kaiser searches for red bromine, an invasive grass, in an unburned section of Joshua Tree Forest.

Drew Kaiser searches for red bromine, an invasive grass, in an unburned section of Joshua Tree Forest.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Kaiser stood among piles of ash – all that was left of burnt Joshua trees and yuccas in an area where the fire was particularly hot and consumed the vegetation and even the root systems of native grasses and shrubs.

"This is the area that worries me the most," he said. But he saw a glimmer of hope: a small unburned stain with cholla, black brush, and Mormon tea.

It was a place the reservation could plant a few Joshua trees, hoping they would survive long enough to produce seeds that would cache rodents and slowly sow the area.

The recovery plans focus on planting small Joshua trees in select areas and preventing the red bromine from running wild, Kaiser said.

“I know there has been a lot of heartache and distress and people want it to come back. But we don't create artificial gardens, ”he said. "We are restoring the ecological processes that drive the native vegetation."

    A Joshua tree grows in an area that was burned in the Hackberry Complex fire in 2005.

A Joshua tree grows in an area that was burned in the Hackberry Complex fire in 2005.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Regardless, the Joshua tree restoration efforts are still at a very experimental stage and have yet to be largely successful. Seeds blow in the wind or are eaten by rodents. Plantings need to be watered and locked in for the first few years to protect them from nibbling rabbits. A few years of drought can kill teenagers.

"The environmental conditions that must be placed on a Joshua tree are remarkable," said Esque.

Fortunately, the vast majority of dome burns were of moderate severity, leaving the root systems of many native shrubs and grasses intact.

With luck, Kaiser said, nature will begin its own recovery in the next year, when large galleta, black grama and other native perennial grasses poke through the ash-gray soil. Renewable banana yucca, paper cone bush, California buckwheat, and other natives will follow, keeping the red bromine in check. Wood rats and mice spread Joshua tree seeds from unburned spots.

But more fire and drought could break this rebirth. Meanwhile, global warming is reducing the number of Joshua trees and exacerbating the variability between humid years resulting in shock crops from grassy invaders and drought that weighs on the natives.

"Where is this going and what new state can we find ourselves in?" Hughson wondered.

Even so, she said, "We're not going to give up."

The dome fire scorched 43,000 acres in the Mojave National Preserve.

The dome fire, one of the hundreds of forest fires that broke out during the Lightning Siege of California, scorched 43,000 acres in the Mojave National Preserve.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)


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