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Re-Inhabiting Burned Lands

A Walk in the Woods


September 21, 2017

Fires alter wildlife’s food, water and shelter forcing animals to either adjust or find new homes. In an intense fire, the complex humus layer on the forest floor gets charred, depleting nutrients and causing soils to repel water. Erosion is greater and the compromised soil produces less nutritious food for the animals.

Despite the hit it has taken, nature starts healing. In the spring, broad-leaved plants such as Rocky Mountain maple, dogwood, willow and aspen sprout from their roots and flowers like fireweed get established. Their leaves begin to shade the ash-covered slopes and cool the soil. This helps protect small mammals from predators whose burrow openings had been exposed by the fire.

Other species that benefit from the regrowth on the newly exposed slopes are insects and small birds that come for the pollen, nectar and seeds produced by the shrubs and flowers. The leaves and twigs attract browsers such as deer, elk and moose and their predators eventually follow. A species of beetles that can sense fire’s heat from miles away comes to dine on the dead trees. And then, of course, there are those species – ourselves included – who fatten up on the morel mushrooms that are so plentiful after a fire!

Lodgepole pines seeds germinate en masse after fires and their baby trees soon create more diversity in the deciduous regrowth, which in turn supports more species.

Animals such as the pine marten and wolverine that depend upon continuous older forest habitat and canopy cover take a hit when the canopy has burned. Wolverines also suffer because snow melts earlier when the canopy is lost. And fish get stressed because water temperatures increase when streamside vegetation is burned and the higher erosion rates add silt to the streams.

And then there are the bears that have been visiting firefighters on the fire line. Even without a fire, bears are particularly stressed at this time of year because they need to fatten up for the winter. Hyperphagia is the term for it. If their food is burned and their denning site is exposed, bears have that much more work to do in order to survive. No wonder they are on the prowl.

The healing process after an intense fire is slow. It rebuilds in its own time, not ours. As these hotter fires continue to burn the landscape, we must learn to regard nature’s needs above our own. That’s the only way we can turn this ship around.

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