USA–– BASTROP Texans, for generations, have made the trip here for a long look at the tall trees, the last stand in Central Texas of a great pine forest that originally stretched over several states.
Now, from a scenic overlook at the top of Park Road 1A, they see miles of brush and charred timber and undoubtedly wonder if the Lost Pines are lost forever.
It is the key question of the most destructive wildfire in Texas history, a wind-whipped blaze that burned 50 square miles and all but a small fraction of Bastrop State Park last year. Although wildfires are part of the natural cycle, officials are worried about the impact of so much scorched earth on a forest already under stress from a lack of management, persistent drought and the outward march of Austin.
The searing intensity of the five-week fire claimed not only loblolly pines but their seeds, creating an opening for other trees to take hold as the dominant forest cover. Already, post oak and yaupon holly are sprouting from their own burned stumps.
“What we feared the most was that it would burn so intensely that we would not have natural regeneration” of the pine forest, said Greg Creacy, a biologist leading the recovery effort for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Our fear became reality.”
The grim reality is this, the fabled forest may not survive without a lot of help.
Lost Pines stands in splendid isolation more than 100 miles from its cousin, the Piney Woods of East Texas and four neighboring states. Experts believe they were part of a larger forest that shrank during or after the Ice Age.
The disjunct 170,500-acre forest also was part of Stephen F. Austin’s first colony and supplied timber for development of Austin and San Antonio. The state acquired about 6,000 acres for Bastrop State Park in the 1930s.
Over the following decades, as more people moved to once-secluded retreats shielded by the green curtain, foresters snuffed out all burns, even the natural ones necessary to limit growth of incendiary thickets. The policy, plus logging restrictions, allowed another forest of oak and other deciduous trees to thrive beneath the pines, producing an unnatural density and adding fuel for the inevitable fire.
Forest burst into flame
Although the policy ended a decade ago, the price of holding back nature came home last September, the day before Labor Day, when high winds knocked drought-weary trees into power lines.
Thousands of trees exploded into flame like matchsticks, including forest set aside to protect the endangered Houston toad. The fire roared with uncommon fury, killing two people, destroying 1,673 houses and charring roughly 33,000 acres in Bastrop County.
In all, three in 10 acres were burned so badly that in places few living trees remain. Blackened pines still stand, skeletal, but there are signs of rebirth: Grasses and wildflowers are back, and houses are returning to once-barren lots.
Mike Fisher, who has coordinated Bastrop County’s response to the fire, said about 700 of the ruined houses have been replaced or are under construction. The Texas General Land Office recently received federal funding to rebuild 150 homes for low- and moderate-income families.
County officials, meanwhile, have removed about 75,000 cubic yards of concrete slabs from damaged properties and crushed it to repair or replace the many miles of roads wrecked by the fire. They will need another four to six months to remove all the dead and dying trees, which will be turned into mulch.
Six dump trucks, or less than 100 cubic yards of debris, mostly plastic pipes and furniture, went to a landfill, Fisher said.
“It’s not over, but we’ve made a lot of progress,” he said.
Planting 4 million trees
The trickier job may be getting the trees to grow again. It is critically important in an county that closely identifies with them, a place where seemingly every other business has “Lost Pines” in its name.
“I wouldn’t know what all the names would be without the Lost Pines,” Bastrop County Judge Jim Wither said.
To restore the forest, Texas Parks and Wildlife intends to plant more than 4 million trees on public and private land over the next five years.
The effort, however, will require more than putting pine seedlings in the ground.
Forest managers also must control erosion and stabilize the soil by reseeding native grasses. Above-average rainfall last winter stripped the barren landscape of the topsoil plants need.
The foresters will use controlled burns and chemicals to prevent oak and yaupon from taking over and shading out sun-loving pines.
Even then, they intend to plant 500 trees an acre with the hope that 50 will grow to maturity. It takes 30 years or more for a pine to reach a modest height of at least 50 feet, experts said.
The seedlings come from the same genetic stock as the 80-foot pines that carpeted the area before the fire. The Arbor Day Foundation, which is leading the fundraising effort for forest recovery, is seeking $4 million, or $1 per tree.
In January, crews will fan out across the sandy terrain to plant the seedlings by hand. The work will be repeated each year through 2017, perhaps longer if drought interferes.
“Without planting,” Parks and Wildlife’s Creacy said, “it would be impossible at worst and difficult at best” for the Lost Pines to return.When the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-evidence-heat-trapping-effects-wildfire-particles.html#jCpWithin 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles.
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2012-08-evidence-heat-trapping-effects-wildfire-particles.html#jCpWhen the Fourmile Canyon Fire erupted west of Boulder in 2010, smoke from the wildfire poured into parts of the city including a site housing scientists from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Within 24 hours, a few researchers at the David Skaggs Research Center had opened up a particle sampling port on the roof of the building and started pulling in smoky air for analysis by two custom instruments inside. They became the first scientists to directly measure and quantify some unique heat-trapping effects of wildfire smoke particles. “For the first time we were able to measure these warming effects minute-by-minute as the fire progressed,” said CIRES scientist Dan Lack, lead author of the study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers also were able to record a phenomenon called the “lensing effect,” in which oils from the fire coat the soot particles and create a lens that focuses more light onto the particles. This can change the “radiative balance” in an area, sometimes leading to greater warming of the air and cooling of the surface. While scientists had previously predicted such an effect and demonstrated it in laboratory experiments, the Boulder researchers were one of the first to directly measure the effect during an actual wildfire. Lack and his colleagues found that lensing increased the warming effect of soot by 50 to 70 percent. “When the fire erupted on Labor Day, so many researchers came in to work to turn on instruments and start sampling that we practically had traffic jams on the road into the lab,” Lack said. “I think we all realized that although this was an unfortunate event, it might be the best opportunity to collect some unique data. It turned out to be the best dataset, perfectly suited to the new instrument we had developed.” The instrument called a spectrophotometer can capture exquisite detail about all particles in the air, including characteristics that might affect the smoke particles’ tendency to absorb sunlight and warm their surroundings. While researchers know that overall, wildfire smoke can cause this lensing effect, the details have been difficult to quantify, in part because of sparse observations of particles from real-world fires. Once the researchers began studying the data they collected during the fire, it became obvious that the soot from the wildfire was different in several key ways from soot produced by other sourcesdiesel engines, for example. “When vegetation burns, it is not as efficient as a diesel engine, and that means some of the burning vegetation ends up as oils,” Lack said. In the smoke plume, the oils coated the soot particles and that microscopic sheen acted like a magnifying glass, focusing more light onto the soot particles and magnifying the warming of the surrounding air. The researchers also discovered that the oils coating the soot were brown, and that dark coloration allowed further absorption of light, and therefore further warming the atmosphere around the smoke plume. The additional warming effects mean greater heating of the atmosphere enveloped in dark smoke from a wildfire, and understanding that heating effect is important for understanding climate change, Lack said. The extra heating also can affect cloud formation, air turbulence, winds and even rainfall. The discovery was made possible by state-of-the-art instruments developed by CIRES, NOAA and other scientists, Lack said. The instruments can capture fine-scale details about particles sent airborne by the fire, including their composition, shape, size, color and ability to absorb and reflect sunlight of various wavelengths. “With such well-directed measurements, we can look at the warming effects of soot, the magnifying coating and the brown oils and see a much clearer, yet still smoky picture of the effect of forest fires on climate,” Lack said. CIRES is a cooperative institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA.