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The Day After.

This year's catastrophic wildfires have finally ended. A new tree-planting initiative helps communities heal the landscape.

In November 1910 AMERICAN FORESTS dedicated an entire magazine issue to the summer's wildfires, which burned an estimated 3 million acres in the Northern Rocky Mountains. From August 20 to 21 high winds generated by a passing cold front whipped up flames from hundreds of fires to create a burning maelstrom that knocked over groves of old-growth trees. The fires burned a contiguous swath 160 miles long and 50 miles wide across the Idaho Panhandle and into western Montana, killing 85 people and destroying a half dozen towns.

Those fires once stood as the benchmark for active fire seasons in the Northern Rockies. Nothing came close until this past summer, when flames charred more than 2 million acres in Montana and Idaho, destroying more than 60 homes.

Historically, wildfires have burned forests and grasslands across the country, and today they remain an omnipresent threat. Significant ones include Wisconsin's Peshtigo and Humboldt fires, where in 1871 an estimated 1,500 people perished and 1.2 million acres burned. Over four days in October 1947 fires swept across 220,000 acres in drought-stricken Maine, destroying 200 structures, including a cancer research institute in Bar Harbor. Spring wildfires have become commonplace in Florida forests. And this autumn wildfires plagued Oklahoma's plains.

In fact, since 1985 wildfires have burned 10,000 homes from New York to Florida to California, according to the federal National Interagency Fire Center. Perhaps this year's most notorious fire was the blaze near Los Alamos, New Mexico, an escaped controlled burn that destroyed 400 homes. In the first nine months of this year alone 77,033 wildfires have burned 6.6 million acres nationwide--double the 10-year average for total acres burned.

In response to the wildfires, on September 26 AMERICAN FORESTS launched wildfire ReLeaf, a large-scale tree-planting initiative that encourages people, businesses, and organizations to join the effort to restore ecosystems damaged by wildfire. The fund was launched with a $500,000 contribution from Eddie Bauer and its customers, half of the $1 million Eddie Bauer has pledged to the program through its Add-a-dollar, Plant-a-tree campaign.

"Trees planted in Wildfire ReLeaf restoration projects help nature regenerate and restore ecosystems scorched by catastrophic wildfire and also return native species in decline or displaced by non-native species," says Karen Fedor, director of AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf program. "The trees will be planted in ecologically sound projects in cooperation with local organizations and agencies."

Forest Service officials, concerned that money appropriated by Congress might fall short of their replanting needs next spring, welcome the project.

"The [Wildfire] ReLeaf program could be a godsend," says Steve Slaughter, a silviculturist with the Lob National Forest in western Montana.

AMERICAN FORESTS also supported the Hazardous Fuels Reduction title (Title IV) of the Senate's version of the Interior Appropriations bill (H.R. 4578), which provides significant funding to clear brush and debris from the forest floor and to thin the overcrowded understory in the urban-wildland interface.

"We believe that a substantial long-term investment by the federal government is needed to address wildfire threats," says Gerry Gray, AMERICAN FORESTS' vice president of policy. "The Hazardous Fuels Reduction title provides significant first-year funds for a long-term strategy, targets areas m the urban-wildland interface, and provides innovative authorities for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to contract with local businesses and nonprofit organizations to provide employment and training opportunities in rural communities."


Wildfire ReLeaf is one direct way AMERICAN FORESTS is helping communities heal after the summer's devastating fires. Planting trees will regenerate and restore forests. But the complexity of ecosystems also means some forests may heal, at least partially, without planting help.

In the Northern Rockies the damage from this summer's fires varies. On some days the fires crept across the forest floor, harming few mature trees. On others, when afternoon winds picked up, the fires climbed into tree crowns and incinerated entire drainages.

Many people consider blackened, needleless trees on ash-carpeted hillsides death warmed over, but U.S. Forest Service plant ecologists Peter Stickney and Ray Shearer recognize the aftermath of the fires as the beginning of a rejuvenation of life.

"These forests are more than capable of restoring themselves," says Stickney, who studied forest regeneration for the Missoula Forestry Sciences Lab for more than 50 years. "Fire is a force of transition that modifies a forest community of plants and animals. It allows certain types of plants to be there that wouldn't be there otherwise."

The forest floor often is covered with duff from rotten pine needles, logs, and leaves. Severe fires incinerate duff and all plants rooted there. But forbs, grasses, and shrubs with underground stems in the mineral soil below the duff will sprout again next spring, often in glorious mass flowerings.

But successful natural regeneration faces many hurdles. Some broadleaf species appear dead after a fire but new sprouts quickly emerge from dormant buds in the root crown.

Coniferous trees cannot follow suit, but for them fire creates a perfect seedbed. The nutrientrich ash is "gourmet city for coniferous tree seedlings," Stickney says.

And damaged trees themselves may provide seeds, Shearer says. Sometimes a rapid crown fire singes pine cones hut the seeds inside are protected. Those undamaged cones open with a dry wind and are carried to the soil.

For more than 30 years Shearer and Stickney have monitored a burn area at the Miller Creek Demonstration Forest, northwest of Whitefish, Montana. In 1967 a wildfire there burned a virgin stand of larch, Douglas-fir, and lodgepole pine, killing mature trees and burning the duff to the mineral soil.

Seventeen years later trees grew in 97 percent of the plots, "the result of seed fall from fire-killed on-site trees," Shearer says. If everything works well, trees begin to redominate a forest a few decades following a fire.

But nature often throws curveballs. In the Northern Rockies bountiful seed crops occur irregularly. Plus, even when cone production is high, early fires can kill trees before the seeds mature.


Because all vegetation burned in many areas of the forests last summer, "mammals and birds will be looking for anything to eat," Shearer says. "Seeds will be under pressure from the moment they hit the soil until they begin germinating next spring."

Then there's the weather. If next spring is dry, seedlings will dry up as well.

Fire also prompts a shift in rodent populations. Under the newly opened canopy in the Northern Rockies, "deer mice are going to explode," Shearer says, replacing voles that like dark forests. That's good news and bad. Voles eat seedlings, but deer mice eat seeds, especially the larger seeds of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir.

After the fires died down on the Lob, Slaughter evaluated the seed crop in the charred trees. "It appears to have been a good seed crop year," he says. "We expect most of the moderate and severely burned areas to regenerate naturally back to native tree species."

Nevertheless, the Lolo plans to replant some species where existing conditions appear inadequate for natural regeneration. It also will restock some young tree plantations that were wiped out.

Even if most trees in the Northern Rockies burn area successfully regenerate within the next 30 years, it doesn't mean they will be out of the woods. Following the 1910 fires, the Bitterroot Mountains were plagued by periodic re-burns that killed regenerating trees. And that's where tree planting and programs like Wildfire ReLeaf can prompt nature to heal itself.

"Much of the [1910] area was burned a second time in the succeeding series of bad fire years." early forester Elers Koch noted in his memoirs. "And it is only on these doubly burned areas that most of the tree planting in Montana and Idaho has been done, and with very satisfying results."

Mark Matthews writes for The Washington Post and other publications from Missoula, Montana.


In 2001, Global ReLeaf will plant at least 300,000 trees in seven fire restoration projects.

* In New Mexico, 4,000 trees will help reforest urban and rural areas burned in Los Alamos during the 2000 fires. This cooperative effort between AMERICAN FORESTS nod Tree New Mexico will involve local volunteers and schoolchildren. They will help plant 1,000 2-gallon trees in urban settings and distribute 3,000 seedlings.

* In California, 94,000 Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, and sugar pine will be planted an 350 acres of Tahoe National Forest near Nevada City. That forest burned in the Pendola fire of October 1999, destroying wildlife habitat.

* In New Jersey, 10,000 Atlantic white cedar will restore a hardwood swamp ravaged by wildfire, gypsy moths, and an unusual draught-frost sequence in Bass River State Forest, A second project promoting forest management activities will plant 32,000 shortleaf and pitch pine.

* In Nevada, 10,000 conifers will be planted on 400 acres of Humboldt-Toiyabe Notional Forest burned in a mid-1990s fire. The trees will stop erosion and restore the area's aesthetic splendor.

* In Utah, 42,300 trees will restore pine stands in Fishlake National Forest that failed to regenerate naturally following burns.

* Also in New Mexico, 100,000 trees will be planted on Mescalero Apache Reservation, expanding on 1997 and 1998 Global Releaf wildfire restoration projects that planted more than 500,000 trees.

For information about how to apply for an AMERICAN FORESTS' Wildfire ReLeaf grant, see Proposals are due by January 17,2001, for funding for planting in 2001.

To donate, go to AMERICAN FORESTS' website or visit any Eddie Boner store and participate in the Add-a-dollar, Plant-a-tree program by adding $1 to your store, online, or catalog purchase. Donations may he mode by phone at 800/545-TREE or by mail to Wildfire ReLeaf, AMERICAN FORESTS, P.O. Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013.
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Matthews, Mark
Publication:American Forests
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:Burninq Issues.

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