New life in burned forest

New life in burned forest

22 July 2008

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Canada — Bright green ferns unfurl from the blackened earth, dotting the belts of scorched skeleton-like trees — evidence that the June wildfire has sparked new life in the woodland.

“After a fire, you actually get greener, more lush vegetation because (of) that release of nutrients. It’s like putting fertilizer on it,” said Don Cameron, a forester with the Natural Resources Department.

A month after fire swept through 1,900 hectares of forest from Lake Echo, Porters Lake and Mineville to West Lawrencetown, green shoots of blueberry, raspberry and strawberry plants are starting to emerge from the ashes. A slight breeze carries the heady scent of fresh leaves, and ants labour to the cheery singsong of birds — all signs that life has returned to the woods.

“One of our wildlife biologists noticed the day of the fire when he was in mopping up that there were mice, shrews, birds . . . and (a) fawn,” Mr. Cameron said. “The animals are back very quickly after the heat and smoke’s gone.”

Off Candy Mountain Road in Mineville lies a sort of logging road that leads to this particular patch of woods. The forester climbs over dirt and rock the landowner had piled at the entrance. Walking along the dirt road, he recalls the two days he spent battling the fire at this very site.

“It looked a bit like a war zone,” Mr. Cameron said. “The smoke was still very much in the air. There were still many hot spots putting up smoke, but . . . when you see a large area that’s black from a forest fire, it has a very devastating appearance to it.”

At the time, crews used a bulldozer to widen the dirt road and open it up to a pond about a kilometre from the main road, he said. Firefighters hoped this and another path they opened nearer some neighbouring homes and the main road would act as a firebreak to contain the blaze. But high winds lifted large pieces of flaming debris and carried them over the firebreak.

A strip of green, low-lying brush lines this side of the road leading up to the blackened trees, most still lying on the ground from hurricane Juan, he said.

“The distribution pattern of the fire was very spotty,” Mr. Cameron said. “You’ll see some of the areas . . . the wind was blowing so hard and the fuels were such that . . . the wind would blow the flames completely over an area and (the fuels) wouldn’t even burn.

“You’ll see some areas that didn’t have any fire at all, and other areas that completely burned all vegetation.”

Mr. Cameron crouches among the burned trees, mostly spruce and balsam fir, and pushes his finger into the crusty ground. He pulls up duff — decomposing organic matter and ash from the fire. Underneath this thin layer is the soil, a bit dry for a normally wet area but otherwise in excellent condition, he said. That’s where the ferns hid from the fire.

Ferns, he said “grow from the root system, so it might burn the upper part of the fern, but the rhizomes from the roots just regenerate days, hours after. They start growing immediately because they’re reaching out for that sun. They want to get that energy to continue to grow.”

Blueberry plants don’t burn as well as some other plants, and the high winds during the June wildfire likely pushed the flames past them quickly, Mr. Cameron said. If anything, he said, the fire will likely help these plants.

“Blueberry burning is the normal thing you do on the off-season. After you produce the blueberries, you burn them one year and that encourages more growth.”

A small group of young birch stand on the edge of the firebreak. The fire had burned the lower leaves of the deciduous trees, which “don’t burn near as quickly as the coniferous trees,” Mr. Cameron said. But the leaves at the top are still green — a good sign they’ve survived the fire, he said.

The fire ash changes the acidity of the soil and likely boosts the growth of these and other deciduous trees, he said.

“Generally speaking, it creates more biodiversity in the years after the fire than was there when the fire occurred.”

Farther down Candy Mountain Road, there was more evidence of the fire’s random path. Trees burned between and around houses, melting siding but leaving most lawns untouched. Withered and blackened leaves hang from shrubs and plants in the front gardens, but the homes, for the most part, were virtually untouched.

The fire jumped over Candy Mountain Road, cleared the 700 metres across Lawrencetown Lake and another 200 to 300 metres before landing in West Lawrencetown, Mr. Cameron said. He pointed to a clearing across the lake, where he said trees felled by hurricane Juan had previously been removed. The fire didn’t spread further because there was little fuel on the ground to keep it going, he said.

But on Candy Mountain Road, the fire destroyed two homes. Behind one, it looks like someone sprayed black paint all over the trees and the rocks beyond the green grass.

“These trees are all coniferous, spruce and fir, so they would’ve had branches coming right down to the ground,” Mr. Cameron said. The soil is very shallow in that area, and with little organic matter on the earth, “it will take an area like that longer to regenerate,” he said.

The Natural Resources Department is offering seedlings to homeowners to help mask the scorched forest, Mr. Cameron said, but staff don’t expect that planting will be required here as Mother Nature works to fill in the view.

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