Hope Where There Is Hopelessness

By Terry Foxx
July 2011

For us in the County of Los Alamos, the view of smoke on the horizon gives us the sense of "not again." As a resident, I have experienced the La Mesa Fire, the Dome Fire, the Oso Fire, the Cerro Grande Fire, and now the Las Conchas Fire. But in addition, as an ecologist for 33 years, I have studied and measured the recovery of several of these fires, especially the La Mesa Fire.

Out of the sense of hopelessness and grief of losing trees, I have found that watching the area recover from each of these fires has given me a sense of hope and awe at nature's intricate balance and healing. We sometimes see only the loss and not the miracle of rebirth.

Ponderosa pine and other forest systems have adapted to the presence of fire. Fire has been a natural part of the ecosystem of the Pajarito Plateau, but we have lacked understanding of the role of fire, the influence of drought, of livestock, and of forest densities. Now most fires are large, hot, and unforgiving. Prior to 1900, fires were generally cool and not of such great acreages. But the basic fact is that these ecosystems harbor fire-adapted species. What are some of the adaptations of plants and animals related to fire? This is a vast subject, but I will share a few observations here.

First, consider sprouting of trees and shrubs. Many trees and shrubs can reproduce by sprouting: aspen, oak, chokecherry, nine-bark, kinnikinnick, mountain's lover. Post-fire sprouting can occur amazingly rapidly, even in the most severely burned soils. Recovery depends on where growth tissues are found, the depth of the heat from the fire, and an intricate balance of growth factors. Generally, growth inhibitors prevent sprouting in undamaged plants. But when the active growing parts of the plants are removed, the growth inhibitors are suppressed and once-dormant growth buds in roots begin to send out sprouts. An area once lifeless and blackened comes to life. Within a few months, sprouts will be three feet tall.

Aspen is quite amazing. Hundreds of roots lie just under the surface of the soil, and from each of these a plant can emerge. In a few years, an aspen grove is re-established.

Second comes sprouting of grasses and forbs (wild flowers). Many of these have underground stems--corms, rhizomes, bulbs. These contain growth tissues that can be a source of renewal. Again, fire can stimulate growth in these underground organs. Soon patches of plants will appear where before the fire only single plants appeared. One plant that I never saw before the La Mesa Fire was the beautiful blue dayflower. But in the burned area it miraculously appeared. Competition from grasses, shading of trees, and other factors make this plant unable to compete in a dense forest. Once the area is opened, the underground tuber-like roots begin to sprout and the dayflower emerges.

A third renewal factor is seeds stored in the soil bank. Soil has an abundance of seeds lying dormant until the right time to sprout, each seed protected by a seed coat that prevents it from desiccation. Some seeds can remain in the soil bank for years. Heat from fire then functions to help break the seed coat and, with moisture, plants begin to sprout. Prior to the La Mesa Fire, I rarely saw buckbrush in the forested areas because the canopies were dense and competition for water and sunlight prevented these plants from being established. After this fire, buckbrush sprouted throughout the area, providing good browse for deer and elk. The seeds of this plant have been known to stay in the soil as long as 40 years before sprouting. Another example is the annual called greenthread--a year after the fire disturbance, greenthread brightened burned meadows with yellow blossoms.

Finally, what about wildlife? Certainly, it is impacted by the loss of cover and food sources. Yet after a severe fire, it is amazing to see what is living in that charred soil. In one severely burned area of the Cerro Grande Fire, ants were busy collecting fallen seeds and plant parts, spiders were making webs to catch whatever came their way, and lizards scurried around lapping up the insects. All of these creatures lived under rocks and the heat of the fire spared them. Soon dead trees will buzz with beetles and woodpeckers. Rare ones, such as the three-toed woodpecker, will busily collect those beetles. Standing in a blackened landscape, it is amazing to see new life emerging.

Because it will take 30 years for small trees to grow 20 feet tall, I will not see a forest again in my lifetime, but I take heart in the way nature begins to heal. My hope for each of us is that we can look beyond the burned trees and marvel at the intricacy of the ecosystem. Our love for trees is profound and their loss is heart wrenching. But let's not miss the renewal going on all around us.

Terry Foxx is a fire ecologist who is now on the Board of Directors of PEEC. The Los Alamos Historical Society and PEEC are collaborating for "After the Smoke Clears," a program on July 30, 2011 for the community. From 2 to 3 p.m., Terry will read her book on fire for children; then from 3 to 4 p.m. she will talk about fire recovery to adults, while children's activities will be provided outside at PEEC.


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