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Yosemite fire ecologist who urged prescribed burns has died

Jan van Wagtendonk of Winters died at his home last month, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

YOSEMITE, Calif. — Jan van Wagtendonk, a longtime federal scientist at Yosemite National Park who is credited with advocating use of prescribed fire in managing forests, died last month, the park and the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Van Wagtendonk, a fire ecologist, died July 15 at his home in Winters, California, the agencies said in online posts. Age and cause of death were not included.

Van Wagtendonk was one of the authors of the first federal fire policy in 1995, Yosemite’s Facebook page said Friday.

His death came as firefighters battled the Washburn Fire, which began near Yosemite’s famous Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. The fire scorched more than 7 square miles (18 square kilometers) before being contained but the grove survived thanks to decades of intentionally burning undergrowth beneath the towering trees.

“Jan was a strong advocate for returning fire to the Sierra landscape. His pioneering use of prescribed fire in the early 1970s in and around the Mariposa Grove started us on the path to reestablishing an ecological balance lost in over 100 years of fire suppression,” the park service said.

“There is poetry, in the words of Jan’s son Kent, that in Jan’s final days the fruits of those efforts had a direct and dramatic effect in saving the Mariposa Grove from the Washburn fire,” the park service said.

Van Wagtendonk graduated from Oregon State University and then studied fire ecology at the University of California, Berkeley, according to a profile by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center.

He conducted research at Yosemite for his doctoral dissertation in the late 1960s and then was hired by the park. In the 1990s he moved from the National Park Service to the USGS as one of the original scientists of the western center while maintaining his base at Yosemite.

Van Wagtendonk also studied the impact of increasing backcountry hiking at the park, including effects on vegetation and trail erosion. Yosemite credited him with coming up with the trailhead quota system still in use today.

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