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Rocky Mtn Fire 2016: Destruction or a new beginning

shenandoah national parkOnly a few days ago, driving east, I encountered a warm glow on the horizon. Its light caught my attention immediately, and was a source of thought the rest of the way home. Surrounded by darkness, the power of this light could not be overcome. Not even the chalky memory of the forest floor, now suspended in the earth’s atmosphere, could block the blaze from my view. Driving toward the light brought some sense of urgency, a paradoxical hope derived from the knowledge that, even though a terrible burning is ripping through the forest floor, the pain and suffering will not go unnoticed. The fact is, death of old is simply a way of making more room for what is new, and the remnants of charred plants will continue to live through the new growth, which will gain life from the sacrifice of the old.

The light I am referring to was emitted by a huge blaze in the heart of the Shenandoah National Park. To be exact, the origin of the fire was on Rocky Mountain, a secluded area of the park which is due west of 340 between Elkton and Grottoes. While investigators are not exactly sure how the fire was started, it is believed to be anthropogenic (caused by humans). When firefighters reached the wildfire on April 16, it was a meager seventy acres. According to Barb Stewart, Information Officer, a fire of this size can be handled by local firemen. However, because there has not been a fire recorded in this area of the park since its opening eighty-five years ago, a massive amount of fuel on the forest floor brought flames to a soaring eight feet in height, forcing firefighters to step back and manage the fire from a safe distance. In an effort to limit the spread of the fire, a crew was sent in with a special permit, which is required when using power tools in a wilderness area, to use leaf blowers to reduce the amount of fuel south of the fire along Two-Mile Run. The use of these power tools was deemed necessary, because on April 17, the second day of the fire, a total of five-hundred acres had been burned. This exponential jump in size forced local firefighters to reach out for help. Firefighters from about thirty states, as well as Puerto Rico, came to help tame the blaze.

Weather, however, was not as cooperative as the massive group of people who came out to fight the flame. Due to a very dry spring, leaf matter on the forest floor ignited easily. Consequently, the fire spread very quickly, even overstepping the park boundaries near Beldor Hollow. At that point, careful and timely control was critical. Even though fire may be beneficial to many forest organisms, human life and property is always the top priority. Gladly, no injuries have occurred related to this fire. In order to combat the spread of the fire further, firefighters attacked from the ground as well as the air. Helicopter dropped fire spheres, which are ping-pong ball like devices, which, on impact, ignite. This technique was used in order to reduce the amount of fuel available along Big Run Portal trail. On the ground, protection was extended as far south as Madison Run Fire Road by leaf blowers.

While the fire may have been completely out of the hands of human control at the start, the cooperation of the Department of Forestry, National Park Service, Rockingham County Department of Fire and Rescue, Grottoes Volunteer Fire Department, USDA forest service, and highly trained professional firefighters all across the country, the fire is now 90% contained.

While fire may be critical for the survival of some species, it is certainly not a model citizen in the natural world. With fire comes a loss of mature trees, wildlife, soil, and, in some cases, habitat for endangered species. The impact of this fire, in particular, is even more damaging due to the huge amount of fuel built up over the past eighty-five years, which allowed the fire to reach heights most forest fires would not.

On the bright side, fire is extremely healthy for the ecosystem of the national park. Species like the table mountain pine must have wildfire in order to reproduce, because the heat is needed to melt the sap holding the seeds in the cone. Also, without fire removing the duff on the forest floor, these pine seeds would never be able to reach the soil where to can germinate in the newly fertilized soil. Table mountain pine is not the only species which benefits from forest fire. Oak trees, which need substantial sunlight in order to grow, will now have the opportunity to sprout from the soil, because many of the shade tolerant trees which block sunlight from reaching the forest floor are now scorched. These two species have adapted very well to their habitat, where fires should normally occur every three to nine years. Since fire puts nitrogen into the soil and makes more room for sunlight to reach the forest floor, grasses and other plants, which need considerable sunlight, will be able to grow in this area, for the first time in the history of the park. This newly supplemented biodiversity will attract a number of bird species that were never present or were very rare to that area. Also, soil erosion from wildfire is not problematic in this area, because duff on the forest floor remains to hold the soil, even when there may be no more living plant matter present. However, the forest floor will not remain lifeless for long, since Virginia’s fire season is late winter and early spring. Having a fire season in the springtime means plants have the ability to bounce back quickly.

In order to monitor the progress of plant growth in the area, ecologists use GPS mapping, as well as ground crews to view the areas affected by the fire. By doing this, scientists like Regional Fire Ecologist Melissa Forder, have the ability to learn more about the effects of fire on the forest ecosystem, as well as monitor trends in burn severity. According to Forder, crews from the Shenandoah National Park have teamed up with crews from the Smoky Mountains, in order to compare data on fire severity, therefore, creating more time and cost effective ways to manage forest fires.

We have lived alongside fire for thousands of years. Native Americans even purposefully set fire to the forest in order to create more wildlife habitat. Fire is a force of nature, and, like any force of nature, out of our control, at times. However, after the ashes have departed into the soil, and the witness trees extend their bark past their charred skeletons, the stone will be rolled away from what once seemed to be nothing but death and destruction to reveal a resurrection of new life.

Column by Jacob Lam. Special thanks to Barb Stewart and Melissa Forder for their time and wealth of information.