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Dana Walsh, a USDA forester, supervised the replanting of about 8,000 acres of trees decimated by the King Fire that tore through El Dorado County in California in 2014.

Dana Walsh, a USDA forester, supervised the replanting of about 8,000 acres of trees decimated by the King Fire that tore through El Dorado County in California in 2014.

Photographer: Max Whittaker/Bloomberg

Scientists Are Trying to Make California Forests More Fire Resilient

As the threat of wildfire looms, a debate has emerged in the state about the best way to plant trees.

To the untrained eye, the scrubby slope off Wentworth Springs Road in the Eldorado National Forest looks like any other patch of Sierra Nevada ridgetop. Tufted in native shrubs and flecked by darkened pine stumps, it’s part of a 30,000-acre swath of land that was deforested in 2014, when the King Fire tore through 17 miles of canyon in less than six hours.

But Dana Walsh can see what’s unique. On a recent Sunday morning, the USDA Forest Service forester bent over a white flag pinned into the ground to mark a barely-visible seedling. As she points to other seemingly camouflaged baby conifers nearby, what starts to emerge is a subtle pattern she calls cluster planting.