Monday, July 11, 2011
Fire Along The Trail
Some people might have wondered if the recent wildfire and subsequent control burn in Gulf State Park a bad thing? At first glance, the burned area might not look so pretty, but ecologically, it might just be fine. Turns out, fire can be a good thing and even the U.S. Forest Service is on board with fire these days, especially prescribed fire. But, a forest fire hasn't always been considered such a good thing.
Back in 1944, the U.S. Forest Service developed an advertising campaign featuring Smokey the Bear. The slogan for the campaign was, "Smokey Says- Care Will Prevent 9 Out Of 10 Forest Fires". In 1947 the slogan was changed to, "Remember...Only You Can Prevent Forest Fire". Scores of foresters and the U.S. public were bombarded with this slogan for years. According to the Ad Council, this slogan is recognized by 95% of adults and 77% of children in the U.S. Talk about an effective ad campaign!
But was this slogan based on sound forest ecology? Well... no, and in the past 20 or so years, this slogan has been criticized more and more by wildfire policy experts. Foresters, conservationists, ecologists and other scientists now know that fire suppression creates forests that are unnaturally dense with fuel. They also understand the historic and ecological role that fire provides in a healthy forest. Recognizing the need and value of fire in the forests of North America, the Forest Service (and Smokey the Bear) changed the slogan in 2001 to, " Only You Can Prevent Wildfires".
According to state officials, the fire that broke out in the campground was a wildfire. The fuel load in Gulf State Park was extremely high and the drought made conditions ripe for a very hot fire. As the wildfire burned, officials recognized the potential for loss of adjoining private property and some control burning was implemented as a tool for fighting the wildfire. Altogether, some 900 acres burned.
Many people have asked about the condition of the burned forest. Will the trees survive? Will the animals starve? How long will the woods look like a charred battle ground? Answers aren't simple but from years of experience and from Forest Service research, here are some things to look for:
- The soil has been helped by burning of debris and undesirable vegetation. Start looking for new vegetation to begin coming up as soon as we get some rain. Seeds dropped from the surviving trees will finally be able to sprout and grow now that the competition has been removed.
-The fire will improve wildlife habitat, not destroy it. Fruit and seed production is stimulated by fire. Yield and quality will increase in herbage, legumes and browse from hardwood sprouts. Openings will have been created for feeding, travel and dusting.
- The fire helps to manage competing vegetation by knocking out poor quality plants such as wildgrape, green brier and many unwanted weeds.
- Fire controls insects and disease, especially those diseases and insects that attack needles and leaves. In our area, we can expect to see bark beetles in dead pine timber associated with the burn but the chance of pine beetles in living trees is remote here.
- You will be able to see for longer distances so the burned area will become more visually appealing. No more dense thickets of weeds or brier patches.
- The fire will improve access for future equipment deployment.
- Fire perpetuates fire dependent species of animals and plants. The fire will increase the numbers and visibility of flowering annuals and biennials as well as other plants, such as longleaf pine, orchids and pitcher plants all of which need fire to live and spread. Animals, like gopher tortoise and quail, also depend on fire for their habitat.
In 1775, the famed naturalist and author, William Bartram, traveled through South Alabama on his way to Mobile, Pensacola and then Mississippi. He reported seeing "longleaf pine savannas,the product of lightning and Indian induced fires". He also saw gopher tortoise, Indigo snakes, red cockaded woodpeckers and other fire dependent plants and animals in these savannas. It seems that fire has always played a role in our forests and although things might look bleak now, I'm excited about what the burned area will look like this Fall. We are already seeing green grasses and ferns sprouting up and the saw palmetto is "greening" up too. The big gator has returned to its water hole and I have spotted several deer running down a firebreak.
Posted by Trail Blog at 2:42 PM