(LONG) Adapted to flames, wilderness survives
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Mon Aug 19 23:13:32 EST 2002
>From The Oregonian, Aug. 19, 2002, p A1
Adapted to flames, wilderness survives
Scientists say they'd be surprised to find lasting damage to species
when they return to areas burned this summer
By MICHELLE COLE, The Oregonian
It will be weeks before it's safe for Greg Clevenger to lead his team
of scientists into the Siskiyou National Forest to assess the damage
wrought by the largest wildfire to hit Oregon in more than a century.
But he has a good idea what they'll find.
"We don't anticipate any (long-term) adverse effects out there on the
fish and wildlife and flora," said Clevenger, a wildlife biologist and
resource staff officer for the Rogue River and Siskiyou national
That might seem an incredible conclusion, considering the Siskiyou is
one of the nation's most ecologically diverse forests, with at least
1,400 species of plant and animal. About 240 of those species, mostly
plants, are found nowhere else in the world.
The Siskiyou National Forest, where fire has hop-scotchedover more
than 435,000 acres, is also home to the northern spotted owl, the
marbled murrelet, the bald eagle and coho salmon, all listed as
threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Two plant species
are listed as endangered, and several botanical resarch areas in the
forest are set aside specifically to protect rare and sensitive
Still, thereуs a рpretty low probabilityс that any of the forestуs
wildlife species will be destroyed, says Tom Atzet, a U.S. Forest
Service ecologist who has spent 28 years working on the Siskiyou,
Rogue River and Umpqua national forests.
Part of the reason is that the species are well-adapted to fire.
Atzet's research indicates that fire burns the same ground within the
Siskiyou National Forest an average of once every 50 years.
"If you look at what's happening this year on the Florence fire and
the Biscuit fire, they're really not out of the range of normal
events," he said. "The one thing I really need to look at, after the
smoke clears, is whether there was a higher proportion of
high-intensity fire than what might have been if we hadn't been so
aggressive in trying to suppress fire over the years."
Conservationists and others say they're far more concerned about what
effects back-burning, bull-dozing fire lines and other efforts to
control the fire will have on delicate plants and wildlife.
"I'm concerned that the back-burning that was done to build this fire
line may have been an incredibly hot back-burn, and that kind of burn
may be a stand-replacement burn, where the overstory trees die during
the fire," said Erik Jules, a plant ecologist and professor at
Humboldt State University who has studied southwest Oregon forests for
"We may end up replacing very old trees in a unique ecosystem with an
area of highly flammable regrowth much larger than anything that
occurred nationally," Jules said.
Diversity in isolation
Geologically, the Siskiyou National Forest belongs to one of the
oldest regions of Oregon. Fossils found in the area date back at least
200 million years.
Scientists say pieces of the ocean floor were thrust upward onto the
continent 140 million years ago, leaving layers of sedimentary rock
and serpentine soils rich in iron and magnesium and low in other
Geography also plays a key role in the area's biological diversity.
The Siskiyou Mountains bridge the Cascade and Coast ranges, connecting
four ecological zones. Over time, a highly adapted community of rare
plants has taken root, including the Arabis mcdonaldiana, or
McDonald's rockcress, an endangered species.
The fire appears to have traveled through areas with rockcress, said
Maria Ulloa, a Siskiyou National Forest botanist. But Ulloa said it's
unlikely that the fire has destroyed the entire plant population.
The fire's perimeter has covered nearly all of the 179,870-acre
Kalmiopsis Wilderness, named for the rare pre-Ice Age gshrub
Kalmiopsis leachiana. Satellite images indicate that the fire has
burned very hot in some areas and left others untouched.
The hot zones include nesting areas of the northern spotted owl. If
it continues burning toward the coast, the fire could threaten marbled
Some animals will perish, said Lee Webb, forest wildlife biologist
for the Rogue River and Siskiyou national forests. But biologists
don't expect any species will be lost, he said.
Forest fisheries biologist Dan Delany is also confident the forest's
wild coho salmon will survive.
The biggest threat to coho is poor water quality caused by erosion,
Delany said. Even as the fire continues to burn, he said, crews are
digging ditches to keep sediment from washing into streams off roads
built by bulldozers.
"When these fish come back to spawn in October and November, they're
going to know it's different," he said. "But I think they'll still
spawn in many of the areas. They'll be able to produce young."
Seen it before
Besides the area's history of fire and recovery, scientists draw
their no-jeopardy conclusions from what they learned the last time a
big fire swept through.
The Silver fire began with a lightning strike Aug. 30, 1987. The fire
perimeter covered just under 100,000 acres, much smaller than this
year's fire but over some of the same landscape.
Lou Gold was camping on Bald Mountain and saw the fire start. He has
spent more than 1,000 nights camping in the forest since that fire and
has watched the land recover.
Madrone, tanoak and bear grass shoots were visible within weeks of
the burn. Spring brought abundant wildflowers, said Gold, the official
"storyteller" for the Siskiyou Project, a conservation group that
works to protect and restore the Siskiyou's wild rivers. "The basic
impression I had was, this was not a catastrophe but it was a phase in
a cycle of death and rebirth."
Chris Park, forest hydrologist for the Siskiyou National Forest, said
the Silver fire also taught him lessons. "The areas don't all burn the
same," he said. "Some burned intense, some moderate and some low.
Looking at this current fire, we're seeing that same kind of mosaic."
Ground surveys the first two years after the fire and then 10 years
later found no measurable difference in stream water quality, Park
said. Although some of the headwaters burned to a crisp, most stream
banks remained intact.
Shortly after the fire was out, forest restoration crews planted
burned areas with grass seed to prevent soil erosion. But surveys
later found that the extent of erosion was little different in
reseeded areas compared with areas allowed to revegetate naturally,
A decade after the fire, tree growth and the return of natural
vegetation appeared to have been slower in the areas seeded with
grass, Park said, probably because of increased competition for water.
In the aftermath of this year's fire, Park said, "we want to take a
real good look at where we seed."
The Silver fire was finally declared contained on Nov. 8 - snuffed
out by rain. Forest Service scientists on the Siskiyou think the same
thing will happen this year.
SIDEBAR: By The Numbers
- The Siskyou National Forest covers 1.1 million acres and is home to
an estimated 250 to 275 wildlife species (including fish and birds)
and 1125 to 1150 plant species.
- About 240 species are endemic to the area, meaning that they can be
found nowhere else.
- Within the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, 22 plant species are "sensitive,"
meaning that forest scientists are concerned about population
viability. Another 14 plant species are designated "monitor and
watch," meaning the populations may be declining.
- A survey of mycorrhizal fungi turned up 32 species of truffles. By
comparison, Europe has only 12 known truffle species.
Flora, Fauna and Fire: Fire visits the Siskiyou National Forest
regularly, so officials donуt expect this summersу blazes to have
lasting effects on the forestуs plants and animals. Some things
Northern spotted owl: Biologists think there are 200 owl pairs in the
forest. Satellite images taken July 29 indicate that some mature trees
where owls are known to nest are probably dead.
Kalmiopsis: Botanists suspect the kalmiopsis, the rare azalealike
plant for which the wilderness area is named, was in some areas that
have burned the hottest.
Mycorrhizal fungi: The nearly three dozen varieties of truffles found
in the forest may benefit from burned conditions in the first year but
would suffer later if the trees upon which they depend have been
Mariposa copper butterfly: Some of these bogs where this insect feed
on nectar - bogs that are also home to the carnivorous cobra lily -
may have been disturbed by fire or by firefighters' bulldozing and
setting of back-burns.
McDonald's rockcress: (Arabis mcdonaldiana) Botanists think enough of
this endangered plant, a member of the mustard family that grows in
areas that have burned this summer, will survive to sustain the
Coho salmon: Fire could be harmful in the short term, raising stream
temperatures and degrading water quality. In the long term, fire may
prove helpful, felling logs that will create pools for habitat and
eliminating vegetation that would compete for water.
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
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