Re-Inhabiting Burned Lands
Fires alter wildlife’s food, water, and shelter forcing animals to either adjust or find new homes. In an intense fire the complex humus layer on the forest floor gets charred, depleting nutrients and causing soils to repel water. Erosion is greater and the compromised soil produces less nutritious food for the animals.
Despite the hit it has taken, nature starts healing. In the spring broad-leaved plants such as Rocky Mt maple, dogwood, willow, and aspen sprout from their roots and flowers like fireweed get established. Their leaves begin to shade the ash-covered slopes and cool the soil. This helps protect small mammals from predators whose burrow openings had been exposed by the fire.
Other species that benefit from the regrowth on the newly exposed slopes are insects and small birds that come for the pollen, nectar, and seeds produced by the shrubs and flowers. The leaves and twigs attract browsers such as deer, elk, and moose and their predators eventually follow. A species of beetles fire fighters call "fire beetles" can sense fire’s heat from miles away and come to dine on the dead trees. And then, or course, there are those species – ourselves included – who fatten up on the morel mushrooms that are so plentiful after a fire!
Lodgepole pines seeds germinate en masse after fires and their baby trees soon create more diversity in the deciduous regrowth, which in turn supports more species.
Animals such as the pine marten and wolverine that depend upon continuous older forest habitat and canopy cover take a hit when the canopy has burned. Wolverines also suffer because snow melts earlier when the canopy is lost. And fish get stressed because water temperatures increase when streamside vegetation is burned and the higher erosion rates add silt to the streams.
And then there’s the bears that have been visiting firefighters on the fire line. Even without a fire, bears are particularly stressed at this time of year because they need to fatten up for the winter. Hyperphagia is the term for it, and if their food is burned and their denning site is exposed bears have that much more work to do in order to survive. No wonder they are on the prowl.
The healing process after an intense fire is slow. It rebuilds in its own time, not ours. As these hotter fires continue to burn the landscape we must learn to regard nature's needs above our own. That’s the only way we can turn this ship around.