Ripple Effect: Recovery of ecosystems after wildfires

17 May 2021

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USA – Eight months after the six September fires spanning Southern Oregon and Northern California, local experts have now moved their focus from the destruction caused to the ecosystems’ recovery.

Chris Adlam is one of Oregon’s six regional fire experts in the new Oregon State University Extension Fire Program. He said it’s important to understand all sides of the story of the effects of the recent wildfires.

“We’re going to get more fires. And I think it’s important to see the benefits as well as the costs,” Adlam said. “We often dwell on the damage, but then if we were able to see that part of this landscape is actually better off with some fire, we would be better able to grasp the complexity of what it means to live in a fire-prone environment.”

Adlam said fires are a normal and natural part of the local environment. While seeing blackened trees can be gut-wrenching after a wildfire, he said that area could also be healthier than it was before the fire.

He said the area could be left in better shape after the fire burns away dead vegetation and future fire fuels. After that, it will attract species of plants and animals that benefit from the burned landscape called “Fire Followers.”

“For some species, having a mixture of trees that survive the fire with open areas created by the fire next to them is a little bit like having the hotel, they’ll live in the trees that survive, and then their supermarket is actually that burned area where all the wildflowers are growing and the insects and pollinators are doing great,” Adlam said.

But, Adlam said the impact of the September fires is drastically different across the different fires and regions. He explained a negative ripple effect on the ecosystem in the Rogue Valley after the Almeda Fire.

“The impact on the Bear Creek Greenway was pretty bad. We had a lot of trees that died because it was so hot. There were so many blackberries in the understory, they really cooked the trees,” Adlam said. “Now the creek is going to be less healthy because it’s going to be in the sunlight, the water’s heating up, that’s not good for fish. We have sediments running into the water. That’s affecting fish habitat.”

Adlam said it will take many years for areas where we’ve lost old-growth forests to get back to what they once were. But he encourages residents to appreciate each stage of forest regeneration and the plants and animals that come along with them. That’s something he’s learned to be grateful for during his decade of first-hand experiences with fire recovery.

“I’ve been to sites that had a fire 15 years ago. Every single tree was dead,” Adlam said. “And they had re-grown and the sounds of the birds was deafening. I couldn’t talk to people next to me because so many birds were singing in those areas.”

One fire spanned both Adlam’s region in Southern Oregon and District Ranger Roberto Beltran’s region in Northern California.

The Slater Fire started the first day Beltran started as the District Ranger for the Happy Camp/Oak Knoll District in the Klamath National Forest.

Now eight months on the job and eight months after the Slater Fire, he’s working to restore the Klamath National Forest up to the national forest standards. Beltran is also considering the best decisions for their bodies of water, wildlife, recreation, local tribes, tourists, fisheries and timber industry.

“There’s a lot to dig into with this. It’s complicated, I won’t lie,” Beltran said. “All this stuff is really complicated to figure out how to deal with. No matter what you do, not everyone’s going to be happy.”

Out of the 157,000 acres burned in the Slater Fire, about 100,000 of those acres were in the Klamath National Forest.

Beltran said they plan to replant trees in 2,000-6,000 acres of the national forest.

“There’s certainly a large acreage of what burned at high severity that we’re not going to get to reforesting and that doesn’t mean there will never be trees there again,” Beltran said.

Beltran said about 60-70 percent of the acres burned in the Klamath National Forest were severely burned and about 30-40 percent were moderately or lightly burned. In the area that was not severely burned, he said a lot of the trees and vegetation survived.

“Even if an area burns and you lose about a third of the trees, there’s a lot of trees out there. And if we lose a third of them, the forest is still going to be very well established,” Beltran said. “And it will go on and those trees will provide some habitat and they’ll eventually fall down and crumble and life will keep going.”

The final factor Beltran and his team are depending on for the Klamath National Forest restoration is simple the “natural process” of recovery. He said the speed at which the Slater Fire ripped through the forest could actually be a good thing for its return to strength.

“The residency time of the heat was not that long and so the effects on the soil were actually not as catastrophic as some people might think at first glance. That seedbed is going to be in good shape,” Beltran said. “The soil is still in fairly good shape and so it’s going to thrive. And we expect quite a few things to be popping up. And as I said life’s going to find a way here.”

Back in Southern Oregon, regional fire expert Chris Adlam had the last thought to summarize his perspective of the September wildfires.

“The impact to our communities when we’re not prepared and we have these extreme fire-weather events can be really dramatic. But I think that the story of the recovery of these ecosystems is equally powerful,” Adlam said. “And for people who live in these areas, I hope that we can see places like the one behind me and have that be an inspiration for how we can also be resilient and come back after these fires. Maybe even come back better.”

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