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Life After Fire

The post-fire landscape is blooming, but still needs our help

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Coast live oaks are sending out new leaves from along their branches, not the usual way to sprout, Cornwall says. "Leaves normally sprout from the tips," she says. "The tips release a hormone that inhibits growth in other parts of the tree, but since the tips burned, they no longer produce the hormone. The phenomenon is similar to what you see when you prune your fruit trees—leaves start to appear on the branches."

Another shrub, the toyon, is sprouting new leaves from the burl at its base instead of from the burnt branch tips.

The most common chaparral plant is the chamise, whose seeds have adapted to sprout only after the higher temperatures of fire. Feathery seedlings of chamise are already in view.

Some plants sprout from their roots. The fire's heat penetrates only an inch of the soil, and the root system beneath may be intact beneath a blackened trunk that appears dead, but often the root system, which is wider than the canopy, has survived. Hence most trees should not be removed unless they are dangerous. Some oaks will take three to six years to reveal that they are alive.

Even dead trees are useful, providing habitat for creatures like the endangered spotted owl, a native of these forests, while fallen tree trunks, left to rot, produce insects, bacteria and fungi that other animals eat.

Chaparral has adapted to fire, which naturally occurs every 30 years or so. But if fires occur more often, as is happening due to human activity, the seeds will lose the ability to sprout, according to the California Chaparral Institute. Wild grasses, which are much more flammable, will start to take over.

Because of the danger of accumulated undergrowth and cramped trees, Cornwall supports prescribed burns.

"The plant community produces more biomass and more biodiversity when there are fewer stunted, crowded plants," she says. "Ash fertilizes soil. Fire stimulates the growth of bulbs and reduces the cover of nonnative grasses." There are exceptions, though. "If their needles burn, Douglas firs won't come back. Neither will bay trees."

UP FROM THE ASHES  Burch grass’ 20-foot-long roots helped it survive the fires.
  • UP FROM THE ASHES Burch grass’ 20-foot-long roots helped it survive the fires.

In a landscape where fires are a natural feature, prescribed burns would make us safer. Insurance companies, however, don't agree. Cornwall says that's understandable, though she hopes the industry will flip from "not insuring properties that do burns to not insuring properties where burns are not done."

A recent study by the Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, supports Cornwall's view. Its report, "Fire on the Mountain: Rethinking Forest Management in the Sierra Nevada," concludes that "California's forests suffer from neglect and mismanagement, resulting in overcrowding that leaves them susceptible to disease, insects and wildfire."

One hundred twenty-nine million trees have died in California forests during drought and bark beetle infestations since 2010, which represents a significant fire hazard. Instead of focusing almost solely on fire suppression, the report states, the state must institute wide-scale controlled burns and other strategic measures as a tool to reinvigorate forests, inhibit firestorms and help protect air and water quality.

"Dead trees due to drought and a century of forest mismanagement have devastated scenic landscapes throughout the Sierra range," says Little Hoover Commission chair Pedro Nava. "Rural counties and homeowners alike are staggering under the financial impacts of removing them. We have catastrophe-scale fire danger throughout our unhealthy forests and a growing financial burden for all taxpayers and government like California has never seen."

Plants grow back; houses don't. A visit to Bald Mountain is a powerful experience, but it is also a reminder: like so much else going on in our world today, the threats appear to be moving toward us faster than our willingness to confront them.

Fire hikes will continue through June, when the wildflower display will be at its peak. Check the calendar at sonomaecologycenter.org for the schedule. Stephanie Hiller is a freelance writer and Santa Rosa Junior College adjunct instructor. She lives in Sonoma.

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