The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 137: Bad Fire, Good Fire, part 2

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Smoky the Bear says, only you can prevent wild fires. But sometimes you can't, and in some ways, that's not all bad. This week on The WildeBeat; part two of Bad Fire, Good Fire, part 2.

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News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one thirty seven.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Wild fires burned through the entire acreage of three major wilderness areas in California late last year. The Zaca Fire in the Los Padres National Forest burned the and the San Rafael Wilderness. The Lick Fire in the Bay Area burned the Orestimba Wilderness of Henry Coe State Park.

STEVE: What I really wanted to know was what will happen to these areas? Will they ever be the same? I talked to Jon Keely. He's a research scientist for the United States Geologic Survey.

STEVE: How much of this area was destroyed?

JON KEELY: Most of these ecosystems are composed of both flora and fauna that's adapted to recovering after large, high-intensity fires. And these are fires that have been on our landscape for tens of millions of years if not longer, and so there's been very strong selection for species that can adapt to these conditions.

STEVE: I took a tour of areas burned by the Lick Fire with Winslow Briggs. He's director emeritus for the Carnagie Institute of Science on the Stanford University Campus.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: My initial reaction to the Coe Fire was, "this is just horrible!" ...One's initial reactions are just deep, deep dismay. But on investigating what had happened and what is happening it's clear to me that we should be rejoicing that the fire went through. This is something that has been very beneficial... Some areas are already restored, almost to their full, original condition, and I find this all an extremely exciting process to follow.

STEVE: We started our tour near where the fire started, on a ridge top covered with oaks and pines.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: The fire went through this area, relatively rapidly. As you can see, some of the trees are really pretty healthy. They're green. When that area first burned, the ground right in front of you was absolutely black. About three weeks later it had turned an orange-ish color, and how do you explain that? Hundreds and hundreds of gophers had tossed up the dirt and were feeding on roasted roots. And now you can see that the meadow underneath the forest is pretty well restored. In some of the groves of blue oaks, you can scarcely see any charring on the bases of the trunks... Some of them were more severely damaged... But at least the blue oaks are remarkably resistant to fire, and I'm optimistic that a lot of them are going to make it through.

STEVE: Let's move on then to the next region of the park that we visited... And this area -- I mean, it looks like a charcoal stick forest.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: It does indeed look like a charcoal stick forest. And that's what we call chaparral. It's a mixture of manzanita, and a plant called chemise. Chemise's other name is grease wood,'s a good name for it, because it's filled with compounds that are highly inflammable... So that when it burns, that's what produces the firestorms where the flames go up a hundred feet, and where that fire has gone through and left ...the charcoal skeletons behind.

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STEVE: I remembered John Keely saying that chemise could resprout from it roots, even if it was burned to the ground.

JON KEELY: And chemise almost never regenerates from seed, except after a fire, and that's because it'll produce seeds more or less on an annual basis, but those seeds are dormant and the lay in the soil and they depend on a cue from the fire that comes in the form of either heat or chemicals from the smoke trigger the germination, and then they, all of a sudden in one single pulse will recruit over a vast amounts of area, a whole new generation of chemise plants.

STEVE: So that brings us to the last location we got a look at in our tour of the Coe Fire, and that is an area of open meadow grassland on a well-drained hillside.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: Now this was a low intensity fire. It was probably backfired... And my hunch is that they torched it along there, and the fire didn't start out to be very hot.

STEVE: So we have this little patch here, you've marked off with orange tape... Tell me ...about how your studying this.

WILSLOW BRIGGS: I think we have thirty five or thirty six plots now... But these are fifty centimeters on a side, and they're ten meters apart arbitrarily in a straight line... And we're photographing them and getting a count at each of the different plant species in these quadrats, over time. So we can compare what's there this year, early, this year late, next year early, next year late, five years from now early, five years from now late, to monitor what kinds of changes are going on. Our quadrats like this are actually in many different kinds of areas, from the most severely-burned chaparral, to the most gently-burned meadows.

STEVE: There's hundreds of plants at least. Do you count every one?

WILSLOW BRIGGS: Well, we have to record somehow what's there... Sometimes we're forced to say, "gee, ...maybe there are thirty-plus." But, maybe next year there will only be ten-plus. And that's a change. Maybe that's significant. So we need to record them as closely as we can... to see what changes are occuring after the fire as things readjust and the plant communities return to a relatively stable state.

STEVE: There's no chance that this fire is going to, in the long term, cut back on the amount of poison oak we have to deal with as hikers, is there?

WILSLOW BRIGGS: Not a chance... Poison oak is one of those plants that has seeds that are induced to germinate by smoke... there are now hundreds and hundreds of poison oak seedlings coming up. But by and large, fire is beneficial I think... It cleans out the understory, ...and it returns an enormous amount of nutrition and nutrients to the soil. And, you can see that in a flush of our spring wildflowers. They're not necessarily fire-followers, but boy, given s shot of good mineral fertilizer, boy they're off and running.

STEVE: Jon Keely points out that while many species are adapted to fire, it has to be the right amount of fire.

JON KEELY: Too much fire basically eliminates native species, replaces them with non-native species... For example, shrub lands in say central coast and northern part of the state, generally have a fire season that maybe only lasts four to six months. When you type-convert it to grasslands, you can increase that fire season to twelve months, and so by introducing these alien grasses you now have altered the fire regime. Greatly increased the chance of another fire occurring. And so the number one concern by resource managers ought to be, "How do we keep fire out of these systems that have just recently burned?"

STEVE: In these areas that we describe as black stick forests or moonscapes, what's your advice or your words of inspiration to people who want to go out and find beauty in what appears to be a scene of destruction?

JON KEELY: Immediately after a fire these landscapes are charred, and they look rather desolate to most people. However, it is, in the first spring that people who visit these sites all of sudden realize there is this story of adaptation because these landscapes will recover very rapidly and those who are fortunate enough to visit these burned areas this spring were able to experience a phenomenon that most people never experience, and that is this amazing display of wildflowers that comes up after wild fires... And what you need to look for is the evidence ...for these species that are completing their life cycle, an appreciation for the fact that they're actually rejuvenating themselves following a fire.

STEVE: You can find links to more information about the places mentioned in these editions, the fires that affected them, and hear an extended version of both parts of this show, on our web site. WildeBeat members can download extended interviews with scientists Winslow Briggs and Jon Keely from our WildeBeat Insider web pages.

STEVE: We depend on you to help support our work. For a limited time, become a WildeBeat member and get a weekend's worth of meals from Alpine Aire foods, books from Wilderness Press, access to bonus audio content, and more, as thank you gifts.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Institute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one thirty seven. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- lights.

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