What a Difference a Little Rain Makes

from the journal of a naturalist

By Terry Foxx
October 2011

As I write this, it has been over 90 days (3 months) since the Las Conchas fire began. Ninety-one days since our hearts felt the heaviness of fear and sadness. "Not another fire" were the words exclaimed by many. Two weeks after the fire, I drove down State Route 4 and took pictures from the road of the entrance to Burnt Mesa. Everything was black. Two weeks later (one month post-fire), I walked to my fire ecology study areas. Shimmering against the blackness of the ash were shoots of oak, New Mexico locust, and gooseberry, some sprouts inches tall. A squirrel foraged and western blue birds flittered from tree to tree.

Today, if you take a walk on Burnt Mesa, you will see the amazing resilience of nature. The rains have come and replenished and refreshed the earth. Burnt Mesa is no longer black but various shades of green with dots of yellow and red of the wildflowers. Before the fire, the dominant plants in the meadow were several species of wormwood or artemisia that are more drought-tolerant. Grasses were stunted and drought-ridden. But the nutrient-rich ash and the rains have revitalized the meadow. Blue grama grass dominates with large seed heads gently waving in the wind. Flowers like Indian paintbrush, lupine, wild chrysanthemum, desert four o'clock, evening primrose, globe mallow, willowweed have revived the landscape. Patches of fetid goosefoot and redroot pigweed have now turned bright red, adding another color to the fall landscape. The singed ponderosas are putting out new leaves. And that squirrel I saw foraging last time is still there.

We live in a fire-prone ecosystem. Plants that live in this type of ecosystem are adapted to fire. Many sprout from unharmed roots that lie below the heat penetration. Some the seeds lie dormant until the fire breaks the seed coat and allows for germination. For other plants, the smoke stimulates them to sprout or seeds to germinate.

Besides these amazing regenerative adaptations are the methods of seed dispersal from adjacent sites. Little parachute-like seeds of many of the composites float to the open burned areas. Hitchhikers attach to socks, fur, feather or tires and are deposited in new places. The birds that frequent the burned areas and non-burned areas eat seeds that go through the digestive system unaltered and find a new home via the discharges. Without competition, seeds take hold.

Yes, it is hard to believe that 80 days ago the mesa was black. Rain makes all the difference. The nutrient-rich ash contributes to the recovery. According to my 30 years of data, the rate of continued recovery of trees and other species will be dependent on winter moisture. Predictions are that it will be dry this winter. But nature has begun to heal with the late-summer rains. As the air cools, signaling fall, the shrubs are turning rust and gold. When I look at the mountains, they are spotted with yellow of the aspen and rust of the oak. The cool, crisp air of fall is the perfect time to take a walk.

I encourage everyone to explore and experience the beauty of nature's healing. Burnt Mesa (along State Route 4 between the Bandelier Entrance Station and the Back Gate/Ponderosa Campground) is a short distance away and an easy, flat walk. A short walk into the meadows will uplift your spirit.

Terry Foxx is a fire ecologist and Vice-president of the Board of Directors of PEEC.

Burnt Mesa
Burnt Mesa 2 weeks after the Las Conchas fire.
Burnt Mesa
Burnt Mesa 2 weeks after the Las Conchas fire.
Burnt Mesa
Burnt Mesa 91 days after the Las Conchas fire.
Burnt Mesa
Burnt Mesa more than 3 months after the Las Conchas fire.


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