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The Return of Our Forests

When the Telegraph and Mescal fires blazed across the hills, searing the earth and sending much of the vegetation up in smoke, it probably looked like the end of the world – or at least the end for the forest.

The reality is less apocalyptic – and the fires could even turn out to benefit much of the land they burned.

According to UofA fire ecologist Molly Hunter, it takes about a year after a fire to determine what its long-term effects will be. For the Telegraph and Mescal fires, an assessment will be undertaken this summer. Then we’ll have a better idea how long recovery will take, and what it will look like in various areas.

Initially, Hunter says, there will be a mosaic of effects, depending on the intensity of the fire. Soil burn severity was rated high in the aftermath of the fires only on Madera Peak and on the west side of East Mountain, according to the Forest Service. Since soil burn severity and high fire intensity generally go hand in hand, we can hope that the vast majority of the burn area experienced only low or moderate fire intensity.

But even where the fires burned hottest, the effects might not be severe. Those areas tended to be dominated by chaparral and scrub, which tolerate fire well. Although the chaparral will grow back very slowly, it probably wasn’t killed by the flames.
Many areas already show forbs growing – the fast-growing, herbaceous annuals that are the first to regrow burned areas.

Succession is the term for how burned areas return to life. After the forbs will come the grasses, which eventually will take the place of the forbs. Next, pioneer trees establish themselves, and over time these will drop needles or leaves to create a mulch that will eventually turn into new soil.

But that pattern varies and sometimes speeds up. If the original trees weren’t completely destroyed – even if there are just a few left – Hunter says they’ll be able to reseed the forest and renew it much faster.

Fire can be good for the forest when it’s low or moderate-intensity – as seems to have been the case for almost all of the Telegraph and Mescal fires. It will clear out the understory, get rid of invasive species and allow natives to take their place, and restore nutrients to the soil.

Some shrubs are already resprouting, Hunter says.

We all would like to know when the Pinals will be open again, and whether they’ll ever be the same again. The area has been closed not so much to protect the forest but to protect people: the fire and subsequent flooding caused washed-out trails, and dead trees could fall. But Hunter says wherever the fire wasn’t too hot – and that does seem to have been the case for the Pinals – the forest will return to the way it was before. “People will be able to enjoy it again,” Hunter says.

The one concern is that the same area might re-burn before it has a chance to heal. Re-burning has become more of a problem in recent years because fires have gotten more intense and more frequent. The way the forest grows back could also be affected by recent changes in temperature, rainfall and soil moisture across the year – which could make it harder for seedlings to grow.

People can help by being even more careful than usual about fire safety – avoid causing sparks, and don’t drive on dead grass.

“With fire comes change,” Hunter says. But the forest will recover, probably much better than most of us imagined when we witnessed the fire’s destruction.

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