Five years after after walls of fire incinerated 15,000 acres in the rugged canyons east of Truckee, Sally Champion stands in a grassy field south of Verdi and points to the ridges that were scorched by the Martis fire.
"The aspens came back really well," says Champion, a hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
With little salvage logging and spotty replanting efforts, the scarred landscape has slowly healed over naturally. Slopes are now tinged with the green aspen saplings. Sage and brush have closed in under the telephone- pole-like timbers of the burned forest.
But the vegetation growing back on the steep flanks of Mount Rose is an entirely different forest from the ancestral landscape that dominated the area before a cycle of logging and wildfire suppression.
"We are never going to get back into that natural cycle because we will not let fire burn because of the homes," said Mandy Brinnand, forester for the USFS Carson Ranger District.
Once dominated by old-growth pines, the area that burned during the Martis fire in June 2001 is growing back with a mix of flammable vegetation that has been taking over the landscape for decades.
Manzanita, white thorn brush and firs are filling in the burned area, says Sara Taddo, land conservation director for the Truckee Donner Land Trust, a nonprofit that recently purchased 1,400 acres in the area.
The Forest Service has noted that the changing landscape now resembles a tinderbox, slowly increasing the chances of another devastating fire.
The agency recognized the problem when it released a plan in January 2005 for the area that includes ranches near Verdi that may soon house thousands of new homes.
"Large-scale, uncharacteristic wildfires may become more common with the change in vegetation conditions ... risk of severe wildfires also threatens the communities of Reno, Verdi, Boomtown, Truckee, Incline Village, Martis Valley, Farad and Floriston," the report reads.
But the forest was already ripe for fire when the unnaturally dry summer of 2001 came, Taddo says.
Logging in the canyons branching up from the Truckee River had altered the composition of the forest. Over time, an old-growth pine forest was cleared, making way for young firs, pines and thick brush, Taddo says.
On June 17, 2001, the tinder-dry vegetation fueled an uncharacteristically hot fire.
The intense flames literally baked the ground, Taddo says.
"When the fire started, there was so much fir in there that it just torched," she says.
The unnaturally hot flames killed the forest entirely, preventing saplings from growing back.
"It cooks the seeds beyond viability," Taddo says. "And it cooks the soil."
And while fire is a natural thing, an intense fire like Martis kills seeds, and in the absence of trees, shrubbery and other more fire-prone vegetation springs up to renew the cycle that leads to devastating fires.
Restoring a burned creek
Standing along the rushing waters of Gray Creek, which is a torrent of light brown snowmelt in the spring, Truckee Donner Land Trust Director Perry Norris looks upstream to the 1,400 acres the nonprofit bought about a year ago. He says the purchase will protect habitat and improve a problematic watershed.
"We're not going to just buy it and protect it," he says. "We're going to make efforts to restore it."
The Martis fire raged through Gray Canyon, and although the vegetation burned, it did not burn down to ash as in adjoining canyons.
Restoration work in the watershed will be carried out by the Truckee River Watershed Council, a Truckee nonprofit that recently contracted consultants to examine the canyon.
"We're hoping to get a good picture of the whole watershed," says Beth Christman, project manager for the watershed council.
Burn restoration is not the focus of the creek work, although it will play a part in the strategy. The watershed council has targeted the creek for restoration work because it adds more sediment to the Truckee River than almost any other tributary. Gray Creek and the Truckee River are listed as impaired with sediment by the federal government.
"The basic soil type is naturally erosive, and the topography lends itself to erosion," Christman says.
Work on Gray Creek should benefit both the creek and the Truckee, Norris says.
"This is one of the largest tributaries to the Truckee River," he says. "Whatever we do upstream will affect the Truckee."
Salvage logging, or logging the forest in a burn area, has become a controversial aspect of post-fire forest management. A bill that recently passed by the U.S. House of Representatives seeks to expand and speed the practice.
Supporters say salvage logging provides wood products without cutting down healthy trees and speeds the recovery of a burned forest.
Opponents of the bill say salvage logging destroys specialized habitat that is critical to certain species, and damages the soil and forest during a very sensitive time.
Chad Hanson, director of the John Muir Project, appealed the Truckee Ranger District's decision to salvage logs on 37 acres after the Martis fire.
He lost the appeal, but has continued fighting post-fire timber cutting up and down the Sierra Nevada.
"I think there is no scientific or ecological justification for post-fire salvage logging," Hanson says.
He argues that salvage logging often destroys trees that survived, which are important wildlife habitat in a burned forest.
"A lot of times what they are removing are large, partially burned trees that would otherwise live," Hanson says.
He says logging only sets the forest back in its recovery.
"Fire is a natural process," says Hanson. "It always has been."