Friday, September 11, 2009

Fire: Destruction and Regeneration

My heart goes out to the people who have suffered massive destruction from wildfires in California over the last weeks. But as I hear the stories of destruction, my mind can't help wandering to stories I have also heard recently about the constructive power of fire.

The most striking local example is at Nassawango Creek, a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Managers burned 240 of Nassawango Creek's 10,000 acres this spring. Dozens of orchids of multiple species sprang up after the fire -- in an area where there had been only seven orchid plants before. Most impressively, one of the orchids that emerged was last seen in Maryland 18 years ago.

Fires knock back invasive trees and other plants, and they enrich the soil. This gives native plants a chance to thrive, particularly those that have evolved in relationship to fire. It turns out some biologists in California think the wildfires will have a similar regenerative effect to the experience at Nassawango Creek. Manzanita seeds have probably been lying dormant on those hillsides since the last fire there in 1948. The wildfire will wake them up, and they won't have any competition from the Douglas firs and other trees that covered the hills before the fire. And the hills will start to look a little more like they did for centuries, or millenia, before Spanish missionaries arrived and started fighting fires.

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