Two weekends ago, my old hometown and new hometown both sprouted wildfires – and they weren’t little. The Horsethief Canyon wildfire in Jackson is currently at 3,373 acres (82% contained) while Casper’s Sheep Herder Hill fire is at 15,556 acres (100% contained). Firefighters are still battling other blazes around the state. And while losing a home, pets, or worse in a fire is a tragic and life-altering circumstance, I can’t help but be reminded that a healthy forest is a forest that burns every now and again.
No place is this more obvious than Yellowstone National Park. In 1988, a number of smaller fires combined into one massive blaze to close the park for the first time in history. The end tally was 793,880 acres, or 36 percent of the park affected by the fire. On top of NPS staff, it took 4,000 military personal and $120 million to extinguish the flames. But what happened immediately after the fire (and is still happening!) is amazing nature in action.
To paraphrase from a surprisingly well annotated Wikipedia article on the Yellowstone fires of 1988: Just days after the fire plants such as fireweed began to appear. No replanting was attempted as “the vast majority of plants regrew from existing sprouts which survived the heat from the fires. There was a profusion of wildflowers in burned areas, especially between two and five years after the fires.”
And the lodgepole pine, which dominates the Yellowstone wilderness, actually needs fire. The pinecones it produces remain closed unless subjected to fire. The article notes that “the best seed dispersal occurred in areas which had experienced severe ground fires, and that seed dispersal was lowest in areas which had only minor surface burns.” Not coincidentally, the lodgepole pines in the park were at 200 – 250 years old and approaching the end of their 300 year life cycle.
A beautiful “weed” that magically appears in burn areas and a tree uniquely suited to the Yellowstone ecosystem depending on fire to perpetuate its life cycle? There’s a silver lining in every cloud.
Natural-tip-of-the-day: Uses for Vinegar