Yosemite National Park: Backpacking through fire

Our final campsite on a granite hiltop overlooking the forest and the 360 degree views

On the last weekend of June, I had the opportunity to backpack through the forests of Yosemite National Park and see these ecosystems through the lens of fire. The purpose of the trip was to provide information to Amy Quinton, a reporter for Capitol Public Radio. The station is putting together a series of radio programs and other resources about wildland fire in California.  The trip was guided by Kate Wilkin, a PhD graduate student at UC Berkeley. With years of experience doing research in fire and frequent backpacking trips for field work, we were in very capable hands. 

Even the wildlife agreed, fire can leave some good things behind.


Over 3 days we traveled ~16 miles by foot through the forests of the Illilouette basin. Frequent stops were made to record Kate’s knowledge for the radio program and to get images of the landscapes being discussed. 

Why was this area of Yosemite so important to showcase in the story of California Wildland fire? Forest here are considered fire resilient or fire restored. Here, when a wildland fire begins, it is allowed to burn (given certain conditions) rather than rapidly suppressed. This “fire use” has been going on here for decades now and is beginning to be modeled elsewhere. Walking through this slightly blackened but living forest was quite the contrast to the aftermath of some fires I've seen with acres of blackened snags and limited regeneration.  While there were areas of high severity along our hike, these were often small patches  just a leap and hop away from a low or moderate burn severity area. Kate explained how these represent the fire mosaic.  It is this variation or “quilt-work” that is so important, to wildlife, biodiversity, and future fire behavior.

With heavy packs (including the recording equipment itself) our snack breaks were very welcome. 

As I am still new to the ecosystems of California, I learned a lot on this trip. But I won't spoil the radio story,  you’ll just have to wait for more! Amy Quinton is still developing the radio programs and expects this and other fire stories to become available sometime in the fall. A website with photos and videos will also be available at that time. I’ll include the information about its release in the newsletter/social media when it’s ready.  But for now, here are a few more amateur photos from the trip, taken by yours truly.

With the backdrop of granite and cat-faced Jeffrey Pines, Kate Wilkin (left) explained many aspects of fire history and science.  Kate has spent two field seasons in this area, leading a small team of undergraduate students as her research assistants. Her time here and strong foundation in fire provided an excellent resource for the reporter, Amy Quinton (middle).

Can you see the flame char a few feet from the ground on these trees? Or are you too distracted by the gorgeous view?

What's a backpacking trip without at least one selfie? Thanks for reading and stay tuned for links to the finished radio program in a few months.