TUOLUMNE CITY, Calif. -- In the midst of a foreboding canyon scorched bare by the Sierra Nevada's most destructive fire in centuries, tiny ferns unfurl along a spring, black oaks push through charred soil normally blanketed with pine needles and a hawk soars above towering dead and denuded trees.

Just four weeks after the most intense day of California's Rim Fire – when wind and extremely arid conditions created a conflagration that turned 30,000 acres of dense conifers and oaks into a moonscape – life is returning as the forest begins to repair itself.

"It's a pretty harsh environment, but we know fire can be good and that species depend on it, and that fire allows seeds to germinate," said Sean Collins of the South Central Sierra Incident Command Team as he examined tiny patches of greenery amid a disorienting sepia-tone landscape.

"Next spring we'll see a lot of wildflowers and plants that haven't been seen around here for a long, long time. In 20 years, we'll see something really nice. But it will take 200 years at least for it to grow back the way it was," he said.

A hunter's illegal campfire ignited California's third-largest fire in history Aug. 17 in Stanislaus National Forest, launching a 400-square-mile mosaic of destruction interspersed with unaltered refuges across the 1,400-square-mile forest. It scorched canyon walls in 25 watersheds nurturing sensitive trout and supplying drinking water to millions of Californians before spreading into Yosemite National Park.

Experts estimate the Stanislaus lost 1 billion board feet of potential lumber in a forest that balances recreation and natural beauty with select timber sales. Forest archeologists are assessing damage and the potential loss of historic logging camps, Gold Rush cabins and native Miwok artifacts.

But the conundrum facing forest ecologists is what to do now in an agency that is transitioning from one with a heavy focus on timber production to one whose actions now take into consideration the impacts of climate change, carbon sequestration and habitat.

Decades ago when the last fires swept through the Stanislaus, foresters replanted vast stands of conifers. Absent funding to manage those forests, and lacking a market for small trees that could be sold from thinning, they had stood relatively untouched.

Inspections this week revealed that those were some of the most heavily devastated from a fire that has become a laboratory for forest management in an era of rapid environmental changes brought by climate warming.

"When they planted those plantations, the foresters wanted to grow forest for wood production," said federal forest ecologist Hugh Safford a day after surveying the impact. "Now there are a lot of things that we are trying to do that we have to take into consideration: watershed protection, wildlife habitat restoration, climate change resilience. That's a big switch in thinking."

The fire's timing comes as the Stanislaus has become the national leader in charting the agency's new path in a time of frugal government. Unlike neighboring Yosemite, where a history of prescribed burns left less lasting damage, the forest service has not been aggressively proactive about managing much of the vast forestlands.

"We have a heck of a time paying to do this work," Safford said. "But when you look at how the Rim Fire burned, one of the things you see is that in the places where they got some thinning done, it worked."

Safford and other scientists are hoping that their observations from the Rim Fire lead to research over the coming years that will improve forest management across the arid West.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure to do logging and replanting on the landscape. Those are important tools we have, but we have a lot of tools and we need to find ways to use them," he said.

Whether foresters will replant what they've described as a moonscape – or allow it to regenerate as shrubby chaparral is just one of the many decisions that will be made.

Today, miles of charred pines and firs with blackened trunks show where crews set backfires to reduce fuel in a herculean effort to keep the fire out of mountain communities.

Even as stumps still smolder elsewhere, crews are working to at least shore up ridges ahead of the state's rain and snow season that begins next month.

On Wednesday along Dodge Ridge, where bulldozers created a 40-foot fire break by uprooting a swath of trees along a popular alpine ski trail, excavators were leveling berms of logs and soft soil while hand crews worked with chain saws, axes and shovels to restore the terrain and launch the regenerative process.

"If you take a look at this ground, there's a lot of seed in this soil," said Glenn Harris, a resource adviser. "It's going to come back. Eventually."

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  • Firefighters enter a grove of giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park in this photo made on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013, and released by the National Park Service on Tuesday. (AP Photo/National Park Service)

  • AP10ThingsToSee - Inmate firefighters walk along state Highway 120 as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

  • The Rim Fire burns through trees near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Russell Mitchell

    Firefighter Russell Mitchell, left, monitors a back burn during the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • The Rim Fire burns through trees near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A videographer records the Rim Fire burning through trees near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A smoke plume from the Rim Fire rises nera Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A helicopter reloads fire retardant as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire in Tuolumne City, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Aerial Water Drop on Rim Fire

    In this Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 photo provided by the California Army National Guard on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, Sgt. Chris Boni, crew chief from the 1-140th Aviation Battalion (Air Assault) from Los Alamitos Joint Training Base (JFTB), releases water to help control the Rim fire below near Yosemite National Park, Calif. The The UH-60 Black Hawk Crews are battling the Rim wildfire, one of the largest in California history, in support of the U.S. Forest Service and CAL FIRE. (AP Photo/U.S. California Air National Guard, Master Sgt. Julie Avey)

  • In this Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 photo provided by the California Army National Guard on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, Sgt. Chris Boni, crew chief from the 1-140th Aviation Battalion (Air Assault) from Los Alamitos Joint Training Base (JFTB), releases water to help control the Rim fire below near Yosemite National Park, Calif. The The UH-60 Black Hawk Crews are battling the Rim wildfire, one of the largest in California history, in support of the U.S. Forest Service and CAL FIRE. (AP Photo/U.S. California Air National Guard, Master Sgt. Julie Avey)

  • Smoke clouds and bands of haze from the Rim Fire in the western Sierra Nevada loom up some 20 miles behind the famed granite monolith known as Half Dome, right center, seen from 11,500-foot Mt. Clark in Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Tami Abdollah)

  • A fire truck drives past burning trees as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A burned SUV sits in front of a campground destroyed by the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A helicopter drops water over a hot spot while battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A.J. Tevis

    Firefighter A.J. Tevis watches the flames of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • The Rim Fire burns along Highway 120 near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • The Rim Fire burns along Highway 120 near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A smoke rises from smoldering trees as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Firefighter Charlie Ferris, of Los Angeles, watches a smoke plume from the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A firefighter watches for spot fires during a burnout operation while battling the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Inmate firefighters walk along Highway 120 after a burnout operation as firefighters continue to battle the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • The smoke generated by the Rim Fire rises under a star-filled sky near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013. Fire crews are clearing brush and setting sprinklers to protect two groves of giant sequoias as a massive week-old wildfire rages along the remote northwest edge of Yosemite National Park. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 28: Cows graze in a field as the Rim Fire burns in nearby hills on August 28, 2013 near Groveland, California. Over 3,500 firefighters are battling the destructive Rim Fire that has charred 180,000 acres and has entered a section of Yosemite National Park. The fire is currently 23 percent contained. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 28: A CalTrans worker takes a break during a tree cutting operation in an area that was burned by the Rim Fire during a media tour of the fire area on August 28, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 25: A burned car sits on the side of the road after being consumed by the Rim Fire on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA - AUGUST 25: Trees burned by the Rim Fire stand on August 25, 2013 in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 25: Flames from the Rim Fire consume trees on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 25: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighter Corey Adams sits on a tree stump as he monitors the Rim Fire on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 24: West Stanislaus County Fire firefighters monitor the Rim Fire along highway 120 on August 24, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 24: A firefighter uses a hose to douse the flames of the Rim Fire on August 24, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA - AUGUST 24: Smoke from the Rim Fire lingers over the O'Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy Reservoir on August 24, 2013 in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA - AUGUST 24: U.S. Forest Service firefighter Chris Brossard monitors a spot fire while battling the Rim Fire on August 24, 2013 in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 25: Flames from the Rim Fire consume trees on August 25, 2013 near Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA - AUGUST 24: A firefighter uses a hose to douse a spot fire while battling the Rim Fire on August 24, 2013 in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, the Rim Fire burns near Yosemite National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 22: A firefighter from Central Calaveras Fire monitors the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA - AUGUST 22: Smoke from the Rim Fire is visible near the Hetch Hetchy reservoir on August 22, 2013 in Yosemite National Park, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 22: A firefighting helicopter flies in front of a plume of smoke from the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, the Rim Fire burns near Groveland Ranger Station in Groveland, Calif. (AP Photo/U.S. Forest Service)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 22: Firefighters from the Colorado based South Arkansas Fire District monitor the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 22: Firefighters monitor a plume of smoke from the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 22: A U.S. Forest Service firefighter monitors a radio while battling the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 22: A firefighter from the Kern County Rio Bravo Hotshots looks for flying embers while battling the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 22: Firefighters douse hot spots while battling the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 21: Firefighters from Ebbetts Pass Fire District monitor a back fire as they battle the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 21: A firefighter from Ebbetts Pass Fire District uses a drip torch to light a back fire as they battle the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 21: Firefighters from Ebbetts Pass Fire District monitor a back fire as they battle the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 21: A firefighter from Ebbetts Pass Fire District monitors a back fire as he battles the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 21: Firefighters from Ebbetts Pass Fire District monitor a back fire as they battle the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • GROVELAND, CA - AUGUST 21: A firefighter from Ebbetts Pass Fire District uses a drip torch to light a back fire while battling the Rim Fire on August 21, 2013 in Groveland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • BUCK MEADOWS, CA - AUGUST 21: Fire consumes trees along US highway 120 as the Rim Fire burns out of control on August 21, 2013 in Buck Meadows, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)