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Why the terrain damaged by the York fire might take centuries to regrow

Scorched desert

The York fire in the Mojave Desert is small by California standards but may damage sensitive lands for hundreds of years.

The York fire, which erupted Aug. 4, is California’s largest wildfire this year. As of early Friday, it had burned through more than 130 square miles, fire officials said.

The 400 or so firefighters battling the blaze have had to balance their efforts with concerns about disrupting the fragile ecosystem in California’s Mojave National Preserve.

Crews used a light hand on the land, clearing fire lines without bulldozers in order to reduce the impact in the ecologically sensitive region, which is home to some 200 rare plant species.

The blaze ignited near the remote Caruthers Canyon area of the vast wildland preserve, crossed the state line into Nevada on Sunday and sent smoke farther east into the Las Vegas Valley.

When there are ecological and cultural sensitivities at stake, firefighters negotiate with federal officials to determine what equipment can and cannot be used.

In Nevada, the fire has entered the state’s newest national monument, Avi Kwa Ame, said Lee Beyer, a spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service. But Beyer said the number of acres burned within the boundaries of the vast monument in southern Nevada wasn’t yet known.

In 2020, the Dome fire ripped through the Mojave National Preserve, ravaging one of the world’s largest Joshua tree forests. The Dome fire was less than half the size of the York fire and killed an estimated 1.3 million Joshua trees.

Fires in the desert are rare because there are few ignition points in the harsh terrain. The Dome fire was started by lightning, but the cause of the York fire remains under investigation, though authorities say it started on private land within the preserve.

Pictured above, a large fire whirl is shown at the York fire. The Forest Service says whirls are similar to dust devils but form from a wildfire’s heat and energy. They can get up to several hundred feet in height.

Mojave Desert fire: Trees may take centuries to grow back.

Joshua trees

Once these Joshua trees are burned, they die and new ones need to be planted.

Joshua trees grow rapidly when young – about 3 inches a year for the first 10 years, slowing to about half that in subsequent years. That means a Joshua tree seed planted in 1987, would be a little taller than 5 feet today.

The Joshua tree’s root system spreads out around the surface and has deeper roots that can stretch more than 30 feet below ground.

Pinyon pines

Single-leaf pinyons grow slowly. A dominant tree requires about 60 years to reach 6.6 feet in height, and about 150 years to attain 28 feet. Growth rates vary considerably even among trees on identical sites and are greatly influenced by competition for severely limited water supplies. Dominant trees may maintain constant diameter growth rates for more than 200 years. A pinyon may need seven years to reach 12 inches. Pinyon longevity may exceed 1,000 years, but stands usually range in age from 100 to 225 years


Despite a growing season that is between 340 and 360 days, height growth of dominant juniper trees is only 2 to 4 inches per year.

Sources: National Park Service, Cal Fire, Mojave National Preserve, The Nature Conservancy,, Center for Biological Diversity,

Source: Orange County Register

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