SciSun: Out of the Flames, but not out of the Fire   Leave a comment

In an update to the story a few weeks ago about the Rim Fire that’s burning through thousands of acres of forest near Yosemite National Park in California, we’ve come across some surprising, troubling, and problematic news. As you remember, in the previous story we mentioned that many types evergreen trees have developed very thick, protective bark that allow the trees to survive most forest fires, which are usually fast-moving and seldom intense. But in research and post-fire surveys, scientists are now finding the majestic Coast Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), can be just as affected by fire as any other species. Generally considered ‘fireproof’ because of its extra-thick bark and extreme height (averaging 300 feet) which usually place the tree crown – the uppermost part holding the leaves – above most fires, the Redwoods are spared as the forest around them burns. However, due to a disease that doesn’t even affect these giants, the Sequoia is now as much at risk from fire as any other tree.

The Sudden Oak Death Pathogen (Phytophthora ramorum) is a disease that’s killing many species of Oak trees and shrubs along the central and northern California coast, and into Oregon. While this doesn’t directly affect any plants other than Oaks, when these plants die they usually don’t fall but remain standing (original concept for a Zombie series – ‘The Standing Dead’) and during a fire become giant torches – increasing the fuel load – carrying flames up the trunk to the highest part of the oak tree…which is often very close to the Redwood crown…which catches fire and the Sequoia, usually removed from a fire, is now scorched or killed.

And despite how devastating and destructive wildfires can be to the forest environment, it’s also true some species depend upon fires to live and thrive. In 2012, the Mill Fire – also in California, north of Sacramento – burned almost 30,000 acres (that’s less than 10% of the area currently affected by the Rim Fire) – and some of the lasting effects of the Mill blaze were miles and miles of blackened landscape; fallen, burnt trees; ash-clogged streams; and generally what appears to be un-livable conditions. Plus, the area, on the edge of the Mendocino National Forest, is popular with campers, hikers and outdoorsmen, so state and national forest services are eager to clean up and restore the land. However, this ‘clean up’, recently authorized by the US Forest Service, is actually entitled ‘the Salvage and Harvest tree removal Project’ and requires any tree identified as ‘hazardous’ to be immediately removed – ‘hazardous’ meaning, of course, potentially dangerous (or just unsightly?) to humans – not to the wildlife who might consider a burnt tree as a good home or seek out the fresh plant sprouts that emerge from the burnt landscape.

It doesn't take long for wildlife to return to a burned area.

It doesn’t take long for wildlife to return to a burned area.

In fact, within the area of the Mill Fire lives the Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina), a threatened species. And while Owls normally don’t seek out burnt or fallen trees to live in (they prefer the fresh pine scent of healthy trees), the Northern Spotty species are very secretive, easily stressed, and any unfamiliar and disturbing activity – like groups of workers suddenly arriving and cutting down and hauling away trees with 18- wheelers – could be enough to make the birds leave their hunting areas and homes. Really, men cutting down trees and hauling them away is enough commotion to make a lot of wildlife leave.

Forest Fires – wildfires – can be caused by many reasons, and some of the largest and most recent fires are still under investigation. But what’s most troubling to forest managers, fire researchers, and scientists is not the fires themselves – which are a necessary part of a healthy environment – but the changes that are being observed in the size, intensity, and damage we’re seeing today. Due to the actions and decisions of man, as well as diseases, drought, and hotter summers, the Giant Redwood – the tallest and among the oldest plant on earth – is now in danger; and the Spotted Owl, already threatened, is facing more challenges. For generations, these species have overcome countless environmental pressures and wildfires. But now, escaping the flames doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe from the fire.


Michonne Says: Fires sound very scary. I’m glad marmots live in the rocks where fire doesn’t go. It doesn’t go into the rocks, does it?

Posted September 22, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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