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Lessons from Caples Creek: how fire helps maintain healthy and vibrant forests

Story by Hayley Paronish | Engagement Manager and Steve Evans | Wild Rivers Director

Recently, a few CalWild staff and board members traveled into the Eldorado National Forest with Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration group, and member of the National Wildfire Commission, to learn and explore the Caples Creek area.

Caples Creek is a rare middle-elevation roadless area ranging from 5,600 to 8,400 feet in elevation that was recommended for wilderness protection back in 1989 (read more). This area is rare because most undeveloped wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada are well over 8,000 feet in elevation. Home to majestic conifers interspersed with meadows, brush fields, and riparian stream corridors, this area includes some of the last remaining old growth in the Eldorado National Forest – while also providing a primary water supply for 110,000 people in the El Dorado Irrigation District service area.

The Forest Service’s wilderness protection recommendation for Caples Creek resulted in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) rejecting a proposal to build a small hydro project at the confluence of Caples Creek and the Silver Fork American River. Also in response to an appeal of the 1989 Eldorado Forest Plan, the Forest Service determined that Caples Creek and the Silver Fork downstream of the Caples Creek confluence were eligible for National Wild and Scenic River protection due to their outstanding recreation and fish values.

Home to a resilient landscape

CalWild board and staff hiking among burnt trees in the Caples Creek area

Two years before the Caldor Fire in 2019, forest fuels in the Caples Creek watershed were reduced through a mix of prescribed fire and wildfire. Before this project, the Caples Creek area had not had a fire for over 100 years, making the forest too dense and leaving it open to large destructive fires instead of smaller natural fires. The Caples Creek Watershed Ecological Restoration Project, inspired by the El Dorado Irrigation District, funded by the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and completed by the Eldorado National Forest, played a crucial role in protecting this watershed and surrounding communities during the Caldor Fire. The 2021 Caldor Fire burned around much of the area that was treated in the Ecological Project and that also burned in the smaller 2019 Caples Fire.

The Southern Washoe, or “Hungaleti” were the first to steward this unique glaciated granite land by clearing and burning forest materials. As modern-day society lives in and near these wildlands, extensive management is needed to balance human needs and forest health. Studies have shown that introducing prescribed fires to an area can significantly impact forest health. By clearing out underbrush and smaller trees, prescribed fires create room for larger pines to thrive. This leads to a more evenly spaced forest, where trees are competing less fiercely for resources. Additionally, the burning of organic material during prescribed fires releases vital nutrients back into the soil, enriching the ecosystem and supporting future growth.

Caples Creek watershed

The confluence of Caples Creek and the Silver Fork American River.

Nestled at the headwaters of two tributaries to the American River, this roadless area is a crucial habitat for diverse fish and wildlife species. Caples Creek is a state-designated Wild Trout Water. The creek provides a backcountry angling experience for those seeking the stream’s diverse array of wild trout, including native coastal rainbows and non-native brown and brook trout. The diverse forests in the area provide nesting and foraging habitat for the California spotted owl, northern goshawk, golden eagle, and the pine martin. The area also supports Kellogg’s lewisia, a rare plant.

The Caples Creek recommended Wilderness is adjacent to the Meiss Meadows roadless area, which only adds to its ecological significance and biodiversity. Protecting and preserving this precious ecosystem is essential to ensuring the survival and future well-being of native fish and other wildlife. Fortunately, many of the streams in this area, including the Silver Fork from the Caples confluence, are currently under interim protection.

Visitors hiking the Caples Creek, Old Silver Fork, and other area trails may view a landscape that includes healthy old-growth forests interspersed with meadows, streams, and some forest areas that were subject to prescribed burns and other areas that were damaged in the subsequent Caples Fire. Both the managed and unmanaged burn areas helped to divert the destructive Caldor Fire around most of the area.

With continued efforts and advocacy, we can work to ensure that this vital habitat remains intact for generations to come.