Forest rebounds after fire
Small ferns wave in the slight afternoon breeze. Tiny strands of moss send out feelers along a blackened boulder. Saplings, just a few inches tall, sprout at the base of a fire-scorched tree. The forest between Mount Si and Little Si has begun regenerating itself.
Three months after the 444th Fire burned 18 acres, signs of recovery abound.
“Things start growing back within three to four weeks,” said Charley Burns. “Fire flares up and jumps to the top of the trees. Recovery starts at the base of the trees. The roots just start over.”
Burns, the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forester who oversees the Mount Si conservation area, has been fighting forest fires since he was a college student four decades ago. Nature, he said, renews itself more rapidly than anyone imagines.
The 444th Fire started about midday on July 26. At one point, 80 firefighters from Eastside Fire & Rescue, Duvall, Snoqualmie, The U.S. Forest Service, the Seattle Watershed and the DNR and two helicopters battled the blaze. Although it was probably human-caused, experts are still investigating how the fire began.
Burns recently led Star photographer Greg Farrar and me through the fire site.
We expected bare ground: Instead great swathes of green stood out – where the fire had jumped patches and where new growth had started.
Burns explained that it could be a wind shift that saved the small clumps of Oregon grape and salal or that this particular patch grew in a slight depression near a giant outcropping of rocks.
“The fire doesn’t get everything,” Burns said. “Pockets of native plants are particularly fire resistant. That’s why people should have native plants in their yards and by their houses.”
Barely five yards away there are black skeletons of Scotch broom bushes. Mother Nature apparently uses fire to clean house in forests, wiping out invasive and non-native species such as Scotch broom and blackberry. The 444th Fire, so named because that’s road closest to the site, fire opened up areas that had been overgrown with both.
One such spot includes a stone-and-cement wall in a lookout point. The wall was built by a private land owner sometime before DNR acquired the acreage. Burns dates the structure to the last half of the 1900s because of a piece of plastic pipe embedded in the wall.
In the distance, we can see I-90 swooping toward Snoqualmie Pass and the curve of Rattlesnake Ledge. Below the Valley looks green and rural. A red-tailed hawk circles over our heads.
“He’s looking for food,” Burns said. “By taking out the underbrush, he can spot small creatures easily.”
Burns breaks off a piece of burned tree stump. Other pieces are scattered around. Once the fire was contained, crews came back through the area to dig out smoldering stumps. Workers break the stumps apart and dig down to the roots to make certain nothing is still burning.
The post-fire cleanup often requires more resources than containing the blaze, he said. One reason is crews do additional damage to the land and the plants while fighting the fire. They work to mitigate that as part of the clean-up and restoration.
“Plants and trees are pretty resilient,” Burns said. “Right after the fire everything was hot and black but see how the ferns are coming back.”
Fire doesn’t go deep unless it takes hold in stumps. That means critters that hole up underground such as mice, voles and earthworms are safe. Overhead, crowns of many trees survive which means they may recover if their bark isn’t damaged enough to let insects invade. Those that don’t make it eventually fall and thin out the forest, allowing survivors to grow bigger.
The advantage of fighting a fire in a recreation area is the trail system. Because the 444th happened between Mount Si and Little Si, firefighters were able to make use of hiking trails that connect the two. As Burns led us along the Boulder Trail, he stopped to pluck a pink plastic streamer from a bush. It read, “Escape route.”
During a fire, the safety officer will mark routes with the pink tape to guide firefighters if they need to evacuate an area.
“You never go into a fire without having two ways out,” Burns said.
He led us to the last stand for the 444th – where the firefighters stopped the fire at the top of a hill. Firefighting, he said, hasn’t changed that much in recent decades. They still work to contain the blazes by cutting fires off at accessible spots – much like an army flanking enemy troops.
Unfortunately when firefighters tackle forest fires, they create new trails to get to the site.
For a recreation area such as this spot, where hundreds of people walk on the main trails, the firefighter routes can cause more damage than the initial fire. Mitigation of those routes is required because new and raw trails cause erosion and possibly flooding downhill from mountain sites.
“We don’t want fire trails to become social trails,” Burns said. “We’re here to protect the environment, not harm it.”
So the cleanup crew camouflages the firefighting routes. The camouflage is so good that when he pointed out a fire trail, nothing could be seen. Brush had been restored, a few small logs were scattered over the path and now, three months after the fire, the ground was littered with thousands of brown leaves.
Thirty yards away, at the fire site, sword fern plants spread over the ground. Oodles of pine needles have fallen, adding a protective cover to the bare dirt.
“A couple years from now and you won’t even know the fire was here,” Burns said. “Sword fern gets burned but the root ball remains. It is actually good for the fern. They grow back more lush than before.”
Protect your home from wildfires
Learn what plants are fire resistant and how to keep the area around your house clear at www.firewise.org.