Just the word "wildfire" congers up fear and dread in those of us who live outside of cities in rural environments. We prepare as best we can with the numerous resources available to us but until we or someone we know goes through a wildfire we can only assume what it is like. Having gone through a wildfire one time gives us some of the experience on how to be more prepared for another wildfire. We are almost one year post wildfire (Spring Wildfire) that burned 106,040 acres. But what about after the wildfire? That is the subject of this blog.
I recall the benefit of trees from what I was taught in grade school. Trees are a renewable resource and they remove carbon dioxide from the environment and turn it into oxygen. They are used to make paper products, lumber for building and most of all they take in carbon dioxide (CO2) and emit oxygen (O2). Trees are essential to our very lives. I don't know if they still teach about trees in grade school today but if not, they should in my opinion as young people need to learn respect for trees.
What Do Trees Actually Do?
Perhaps the most important function trees accomplish is the absorption of CO2 and making O2. A mature tree can absorb 48 pounds of CO2 per year and produce 260 pounds of O2 per year. An acre of trees can produce enough O2 to be a sufficient amount for 18 people. With 160,040 acres of mostly forested land destroyed it would be a staggering loss of O2 producing trees. I’m not particularly skilled in mathematics but I figure that one single wildfire created a huge loss of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere and also the production loss of O2 capability.
I have followed the prosecution of the individual alleged to have caused this wildfire but have not heard anything about losses from the destruction of trees regarding the environment, possibly because there is no way to accurately measure the loss of potential oxygen or the absorbance of carbon dioxide. There was the loss of 134 homes and fortunately no loss of human life. There is also no mention of loss of wildlife, birds or insects. Perhaps that is because there is no way to accurately calculate that type of loss.
Life With Animals
One of the joys in living remotely is being able to live in the midst of wild animals. There is much to be learned from observing same and it is the same with the birds and even in some cases the insects. With 160,040 acres burned with nothing but black sticks which used to be trees and solid ash on the ground to 4-5” deep it is hard to comprehend how much wildlife was also destroyed. One thing is certain: when or if growth finally happens in the mountains it won’t resemble what we remember prior to the wildfire.
Decades To Recovery
We had a wildfire near us 13 years ago and the growth has not noticeably rebounded yet. It is an ugly reminder of how damaging these wildfires are. We have lived at 9,800’ elevation for 22 years and trees I planted early in our life here are barely 6’ high now. Mountain soil is rocky and is less than ideal plus the growing season is short. Trees grow very slowly at high elevation in the mountains. Ground cover and wildflowers will rebound quickly except in the areas that burned so hot that all the nutrients were burned from the soil.
In our small oasis in the middle of the burn scar area we have noticed far fewer bees. We have noted less insect activity post wildfire. The only insects that we now have are ant colonies and pesky flies. Grasshoppers, butterflies, bees and moths seem to be missing. We have had frogs in our small spring that no longer appear. We happily have not noted mosquitoes which will probably mean the bat population will also diminish as mosquitoes are a prime source of their food.
With our few acres still green but surrounded by miles of burn scar the birds seem to be concentrated around our home. We are seeing fewer wrens, western tanagers, grosbeaks, fly catchers and robins present, perhaps because they were unable to our evade the wildfire and perished. The larger birds like grey jays, stellar jays, crows, ravens, turkeys, clark's nutcracker and a few of the smaller birds like mountain chickadees, finches and junko are still present but in lesser quantity. Hummingbirds have migrated back but in fewer numbers. The wildfire was one of the hottest and fastest moving fires and I’m sure many birds and animals were unable to find safe haven and perished.
We had several streams that held native trout but those streams are now filled with ash and soot and how the fish fared with their pure sparkling water suddenly reduced to mud/ash slides clogging them and probably turning them somewhat acidic is questionable. Whether they still have a food source will have to be determined by biology officials and whether the water quality is sufficient to sustain a fish population is undetermined.
It is very tragic that 134 homeowners lost their home, dreams, hard work and investment in our community. I believe it is equally tragic that the many acres of trees, wildlife and landscape are lost. With the slow growth at higher altitude it will take decades to see any renewal. Coupled with mud slides, blowing ash, and scorched earth that is now nutrient deprived, the lifestyle for those who remain in the community are faced with the constant reminder of just how devastating wildfires can be. With the multitude of wildfires that occur each year - year after year - the total destruction to our environment and wildlife is mind boggling. The punishment for one negligent act is far more reaching than just the loss of homes. I don’t know the appropriate punishment for such loss but in my opinion it should be included in any sentence because it is lost to all of us for decades.
For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and their constantly changing lifestyle and life at high elevation go to their personal blog site at: www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com
Tree data courtesy of my grade school teachers.
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