So now that we know that the human community is going to be okay, our attention shifts now to the forest and what will happen next. How will things recover? If you read my prior post, you know that my prediction was that everything will be fine. I stand by that prediction, but now can say with a better degree of certainty what I think will happen in different areas. One of my goals as we move into the future is to keep attention on the forest and what happens in the aftermath. I won't tell you that everything is going to be peachy, because even though overall the fire is a positive event for the forest, there will be some negatives and we will highlight some of those as they occur, along with the positives as they occur. The point is to look at the fire effects objectively. Some of these effects will be quick. Others will be more delayed. My hope is that we can gain a great deal of information that will be helpful as we think about fire in the future and how it can and should be used as a management tool for our forests. In this post, I plan to take you on a bit of a journey that began on November 26, 2016 and ended on February 18, 2017, at least for the purposes of this writing. I hope to provide an update on a quarterly basis, highlighting the changes as they occur. This may be a little long-winded, but bear with me and let the pictures tell the story.
In telling this story, it was very important for me to have a starting point which meant getting on the ground as quickly after the fire as I could. As I have mentioned in some other writings, this fire was like a big reset button and significantly changed many of the areas that burned. It was necessary to know what burned areas looked like immediately after burning in order to be able to track change over time, basically serving as a baseline. I took some photographs prior to November 26th that I used in my previous posts, mainly to provide some reassurance that everything would be alright, and I think I conveyed that message pretty well.
I began my data gathering mission on November 26, 2016, as fire was still burning in places, starting at the ignition point of Party Rock. On this particularly beautiful day after Thanksgiving, my buddy Chris and I hiked up the old logging road to Party Rock, viewing the scorched earth with awe, at the same time remarking that not everything was consumed. Surprisingly, a large number of areas were barely even burned (more about that later). When we arrived at Party Rock, we got our first real impression of how serious this fire was. Holes in the ground still smoldered where stumps and roots had burned. This was the epicenter of the fire that caused so much headache for so many. The once green spikemoss pads were mostly incinerated. Where spikemoss had once grown, the soil was charred and soft, like talcum powder. The whole look of Party Rock was changed. We walked a short distance along the dome towards the east where we saw more burned spikemoss pads, burned Virginia pines and very little else in terms of vegetation. There were a few small hickory trees on the lower edge of the granite dome that had burned nearly in two. Everywhere we looked we could see the path the fire had taken, but amidst all of that destruction, at no point did I feel a sense of alarm or that this was the end for Party Rock or the rest of the forest area that burned.
|Even with smoke in the air, the view was still quite nice.|
|Fire burned across the entire dome, moving upslope as embers rained down the cliff-face.|
|A "Before" shot from spring of 2015.|
|An "After" shot from close to the same location.|
|The "old man" of Party Rock. This eastern red cedar remains undamaged.|
|Moving into the woods, we see areas of mixed fire intensity.|
|An area of low to moderate intensity, the leaf canopy fell shortly after the fire burned out.|
|Low intensity burn area in beautiful, open woods.|
|Lots of hickory nuts all over the ground.|
|Fire exposes mast such as acorns and hickory nuts, providing a quick food source for browsers.|
|The soil was still very warm to the touch around this large, undamaged white oak.|
|Partially burned snags pose a real danger to the unwary hiker.|
|Fire moved down the hill in this area, burning all the leaf litter. New leaf fall doesn't cling well to steeper slopes and tends to pile up at the toe of the slope, in gullies and depressions.|
|Scattered rock piles pose a mystery.|
|What was the purpose of these rock piles?|
|Due to the nature of the winds, fire burned everything but the road.|
|Fire burned really hot at this spot along the ridge, turning the rhododendrons into crispy skeletons.|
|This once mighty tree was damaged so severely that it fell. It now has new potential as food and habitat.|
Moving hastily along, we neared the end of our hike along the ridge, easing out onto the northern shoulder of Shumont Mountain and ending our journey at Eagle Rock. The higher in elevation we traveled the more intensely burned areas we saw and the less leaf coverage there was, as the leaves above 3,000 feet had mostly already fallen, many before the fire even began.
|Even after burning, this little spot had a subtle beauty worthy of a photograph.|
|Even as fire continued to burn in places in the valley below, the view from Eagle Rock was still amazing.|
|The snag in the middle of the frame has been standing at Eagle Rock for years. How it survived the fire I can't explain.|
|Some areas of the forest just simply don't burn as well as others. Patches of forest that have a more dense herb layer, with less shrubs tend to have less ignitable fuel, so they tend to burn with much lower intensity.|
|Fire burned pretty hot around these tulip poplar trees. These trees may not survive their injuries.|
|In many areas, falling leaves re-ignited leaving very little on the forest floor. In steeper areas, the remaining leaves that fell settled in depressions, gullies, and ravines as seen here in this photo.|
Many have voiced concerns about the animals, and as I said in my previous post, the animals instinctively know how to deal with fire. Most of the larger animals just moved out of the way. Some of the smaller and slower animals such as turtles, salamanders, and many invertebrates probably took a hit, but the overall species impact should be low. Individual mortality is certain within certain species but specific populations should remain intact.
As I bring this post to a close, I do want to report that as of February, we are seeing positive signs of regeneration. Many south-facing slopes are already showing signs of new growth as the seed bank is beginning to germinate. What is most exciting to me is that in one area of low intensity fire, I have already seen white irisette seedlings coming up out of the burned soil. This is super exciting and reassures me that things will be fine, despite the resource management challenges that await.
|Seedlings of something (likely chickweed) coming up on the burned roadside along Hwy 64/74A|
|Some type of aster regenerating from its root crown.|