USA — It started with a nice view and the flick of a cigarette. Maybe a hiker enjoying the dry April weather, maybe a motorist idling on the rocky scenic overlook no matter. The butt ignited the belly of a forest that hadn’t burned in some 60 years, and by the time park rangers and firefighters corralled the flames, more than 3,000 acres of Shawangunk Ridge wildland in Ulster County, N.Y. were charred.
Folks cried tragedy. From Catskill locals to their Hudson Valley neighbors to Manhattan tourists everyone wanted to know how this could happen here, in one of the state’s finest preserves?
“A lot of people saw this and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is a disaster,'”””” said Gabriel Chapin, a forest and fire ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Cragsmoor, N.Y. “There was nothing about this fire that was a disaster.”
Touring the scorched mountaintops recently, Chapin and a group of local biologists were excited by the opportunities the spring forest fire left behind.
See this sassafras, with its mitten-shaped leaves?
Park staff have never seen so much.
And the witch hazel and the wintergreen and the Indian cucumber root?
“We have more of it than we ever did,” said John Thompson, a natural resources specialist with the Mohonk Preserve. “Some species are already responding to the openings on the forest floor.”
The burned acreage has also attracted rare birds, such as scarlet tanagers and Canada warblers, plus porcupines, bears, bobcats and rattlesnakes. It’s an influx of biodiversity that’s drawn scientists to the site all summer.
Problems in the preserve
This fire triggered “a certain level of excitement,” said Laura Conner, an environmental educator with the Minnewaska State Park Preserve. “(Park staff) knew there was a lot of fuel load in the park,” she said. “Everybody was sort of waiting for this to happen.”
The northern Shawangunk Ridge spans nearly 40,000 acres of largely undeveloped pitch pine barrens and rocky summits, chestnut oak forests and heath. To an untrained eye, the expanse looks magnificent and wild, but park experts detect problems in the preserve.
Top among them: the disappearance of the oak trees. Over the last few decades, this towering ridge staple has been pressured by drought, insects and other types of vegetation.
“The future of our oak forest is looking rather bleak,” said Thompson. “There isn’t a lot of oak regeneration here. We’re getting a lot of red maple and sweet gum instead.”
Oak seedlings need plenty of sunlight to get started on the rocky forest floor, but increasing spreads of thick mountain laurel and hardier deciduous trees have created much denser, darker growing conditions.
The spring forest fire not only scorched heavy shrubs and underbrush but killed some of the competing trees, letting sunshine bathe the forest floor again. With their hard, tough bark and deep roots, many oaks survived the blaze and reproduced.
That doesn’t mean the oak forest will make a comeback.
“But it will be interesting to watch and see if they recover,” said Thompson. “This fire sets back the clock, to a certain point, so (the oaks) will have a second chance.”
The blaze consumed nearly 3,100 acres over five days. With higher winds and lower humidity, it could easily have jumped its fire breaks, injuring crews, ruining homes and engulfing twice as much land.
Building a better fire
A manageable forest fire has flames no more than four feet high. In the Shawangunks, reports measured flames as high as 90 feet, with a deafening sizzle like water on bacon grease. In some spots, the blaze was tall and hot enough to damage power lines.
Fire ecologist Chapin was one of hundreds on the scene, struggling to establish fire breaks around the inferno. Crews used existing roads and trails as perimeters, lighting small fires designed to eat up all the fuel ahead of the big one. Their defenses held, but next time, the park may not be so lucky.
Hiking through the forest’s quarantined burn unit, Chapin pointed to a black huckleberry shrub. Some folks call it “kerosene bush,” he said, because its resin is so flammable.
He thinks the state should consider prescribed burns as part of its fire management plan. Lighting smaller, more frequent fires in park lands can minimize the amount of duff layers of rotting plant matter in the forests, enrich the soil and maintain a better balance.
“Like a drug prescription, the controlled burns are very specific to the symptoms and needs of the forest,” he said.
The Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership, a team of 10 non-profit and public groups, is working with local communities to develop a better fire management plan one that includes prescribed burns. The Partnership has already staged controlled forest fires on about 60 acres in the Mohonk Preserve.
Last week, a group of ecologists scrambled up a rocky slope off Route 44/55, near the spot where investigators think the fire started. They spent the afternoon debating forest management techniques and carefully studying signs of “green-up,” or recovery, in the park.
Even here, where the tree bark looks like burnt toast and rubs off black on the scientists’ fingers, there are bright new pine needles dangling from brittle stems.
Emerald candelabras, Thompson calls them, snapping a picture.
On the way out, he bends down to pick up some trash.