What's inevitable? -- Death, Taxes -- and Fire!

Where I live, periodic fires are part of nature's rhythm.

(Photo source: http://www.panoramio.com/user/3100664?with_photo_id=42153268, used with permission)

As we enter the dry months, my anxiety levels rise, and I talk to myself frequently about fire, what to do if there is fire, why I haven't prepared better for fire, and what are the chances I might die in a fire. I try to breathe and accept. But coming as I do from milder climes where there are no lions, earthquakes, poisonous critters -- or periodic fires, I do feel a bit jittery at times.

When Town Mouse and I were at Tassajara on the Wildflowers and Birds of Tassajara workshop, we enjoyed an evening slide show given by workshop leader Diane Renshaw, who is an ecologist and naturalist. Diane has been closely involved with Tassajara for many years, and has studied the ecology there, including the fires.

As you may know, Tassajara almost burned in the Basin Complex fire of 2008, and Diane was there right after the fire. What had been thick stands of chaparral were reduced to open land with a few blackened sticks, as shown in the first picture above.

By the way, a book about Tassajara and the fire is coming out soon. It's called Fire Monks: Zen Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara, by Colleen Morton Busch and it tells the story of the Zen monks who remained behind after the evacuation order to - literally, do or die as needed.

In fact on our hike, we walked through those same areas she showed in the slide show. Now many shrubs are vigorously sprouting or starting from seed, and many beautiful annual and perennial plants are flowering and enjoying both the ash-enriched soil and the sunlight that before was shut out by the dense chaparral canopy, which stood at between 8 and 15 feet or so.

Here's a picture taken on Prayer Flag Rock trail by Town Mouse in 2010:

And here is a similar area on the same trail, this year - you can see there has been some more plant growth, and also, unfortunately, the non-native European grasses have taken hold:

In her talk, Diane said we must just accept now that the non-native grasses are part of California's ecology, because they are not going away. (A fact to which I can attest having embarked too late again on weedy grass eradication in my north garden area. Still, I'll keep at it, tipping the balance a little more each year, I hope.)

These grasses washed ashore from the boats of the passing Spaniards even before they landed, and after they landed, from the fodder they fed the animals.

I have to work hard not to find this depressing. The loss of unique habitats, the changing character of the land... A workshop participant helped me step back and take in the larger perspective of change over longer stretches of time. Did you know there was once no San Francisco Bay? - the Sacramento river flowed through a valley and out between what is now the Golden Gate, and emptied into the sea which was several miles outside the Golden Gate.

Nothing stands still, and "restoration" is an impossible ideal. Still, nature balances and rebalances, miraculously, given time. It may not be what we want, but it is what is.

That is not to say restoration work is pointless. I will keep on at the north valley weeds. I focus now on the Bradley method, revegetating with natives that occur there naturally before progressing to another swathe, working from the paths outwards. I do see natives returning, naturally, and I do prefer them to the weeds, that IS for sure!

But I'll cultivate acceptance of the changed grasslands.

The first year after the fire, the wildflowers were stunning, and the second year, stunning again - both Town Mouse and I went in May of 2010, and you can see all our Tassajara posts under the label "Tassajara".

This year, almost three years after the fire, that initial explosion of flowering plants has muted slightly to the merely amazing. The post fire nutrients have been mostly used up, the canopy is starting to grow again, and the fire-germinated seeds have germinated now.

GARDENING TIP: Diane said she had had luck germinating fire-follower seeds using a Liquid Smoke type product, the stuff you can buy for barbecuing meat! A page on jhudsonseeds.net explains this method (search for "SMOKE TREATMENT"). Basically soak the seeds overnight in a 1:9 solution of a "natural" liquid smoke product, or water the planted seeds once with the solution!

I had to wait a long time for the shuttle out of Tassajara. Snow on the peaks -- yes snow! and rain and mud had caused many people to be stranded on the 11 mile dirt road into Tassajara, and the driver was busy rescuing people. I enjoyed this extra time there. One thing I did was peruse the Tassajara planning and development guide. I'll close with an essay that Diane wrote in that document, called "Chaparral Ecology and the Ventana Wilderness". It contrasts the behavior of fire in chaparral and in Sierra forests:
Sclerophyllous shrublands, known as chaparral in California, occur around the world in Mediterranean climates, and cover 3 percent of the world’s land surface. They grow in areas that share certain conditions: long, hot, dry summers; mild, wet winters; similar latitude and proximity to a cold ocean; and a continental land mass with high pressure systems that produce summer winds.

The fire ecology of chaparral ecosystems is complex, and research continues to turn up new information that improves our understanding of it. Most of the research to date on chaparral and fire has been done on southern California locations; little to none has been one on the Big Sur and Ventana areas surrounding Tassajara, a region of complex plant communities each with its own particular response to fire.

Wherever it is found, chaparral is characterized by its basic structure: dense, low-growing woody vegetation. While chaparral around the world has the same characteristic structure, the plant species that grow within the chaparral community can vary widely depending on local climate and geography. Because of its dense, woody vegetation pattern, this ecosystem is particularly susceptible to fire. Chaparral is prone to wildfires caused by dry lightning and human causes, on a periodic return interval of 30-75 years. Twenty-five percent of the Santa Lucia range has burned at least once since 1950, and the area around Tassajara, a mix of woodland, grassland, and chaparral, has burned 3 times in the past 33 years.

Generally speaking, under natural conditions, western conifer and oak forests burn on a shorter fire return interval. In these communities, surface fires burn through on regular intervals, consuming understory plants and dead branches. The trees are protected by thick bark. In the absence of the frequent fires (10-20 years or so) ladder fuels, dead biomass, and dense understories build up, leading to destructive crown fires. Fire suppression that allows the buildup of understory fuels has lead to management problems in these short fire return forests.

In contrast, crown fires are the ideal natural condition in chaparral. Because lightning is less common in chaparral areas, the fire return interval is longer (35-80 years or so) than in the Sierra forests. Dense packing and the abundance of small dead wood, thin bark, and numerous lichens facilitate easy, quick burning, so that when chaparral burns, it burns completely in a stand-replacing crown fire. Unlike the Sierra conifer forests, chaparral does not require frequent fires to stay healthy, and in fact can be destroyed by fires that come through too frequently, killing plants before they reach reproductive maturity. Survival and reproductive strategies in both the Sierra woodlands and the coastal chaparral are uniquely adapted to their own particular fire ecology.

A notable aspect of the chaparral ecosystem is that the first species that appear post-fire are also the climax species of that community. This means that the species that show up immediately after a fire are also the same species that will exist in the mature ecosystem after many years. There is not a succession of different species over time.

Chaparral plants exhibit three primary reproductive strategies in response to fire. Some plants (certain manzanitas, for instance) regenerate after a fire by resprouting from lignotubers, a woody burl at the base of the stem that resists burning. Plants in the lily family survive and sprout from bulbs, which are buried in the ground and thus protected from fire. Other plants recover from fire both by sprouting from the root crown or branches and by growing from fire-resistant seeds. Another group of plants (certain of the Ceanothus, for instance) do not resprout at all after the fire but instead rely solely on post-fire seedling establishment. These plants establish quickly after a fire and produce abundant seeds at a young age. Their seeds are resistant to decomposition in the soil and remain viable for decades, capable of waiting 75 years or more for the next fire to come along. Many of these seeds require specific triggers from another fire to break dormancy, germinating only when exposed to certain chemicals in smoke or exudates and leachates from charred wood. These unique pyrophytic, or fire-loving, annuals and endemics are often seen growing only in the first few years after a burn, not to be seen again for many decades until the next burn occurs.

All plants reproducing after a fire respond very positively to an increase in light, reduced competition, and increased nutrients released into the soil by the fire. Because of this, a burn will frequently be followed the next year by a remarkable display of spring wildflowers and plant growth[.]


Terra said…
I find the regrowth after a fire to be interesting, so thanks for this post. I always admire when people in our area go on a day of digging out non native plants and planting with natives. In researching for a book I am writing I learned how pampas grass provides little for wildlife as it chokes out native plants in California.
Country Mouse said…
I'd like to know more about your book, Terra. Interestingly the owner of the site whose info on using liquid smoke I referred to in the post has contrarian views on invasives, views which are interesting to look at - always good to have one's beliefs challenged, and that's what he does.
Diana Studer said…
Kirstenbosch sells liquid smoke - on impregnated blotting paper. Does 'smoke flavour' fool the seeds??
Liquid smoke? Really? That's intriguing. I would have thought that the heat component in fire was the key to scarifying the fire resistant seeds to encourage them to germinate. Learn something new every day.

I think for 'restoration' we do what we can, but always with an eye to the fact that nothing is static. The earth is constantly in flux, there's always change. We can only strive to impact that change as positively as possible. I'm late on pulling my weedy grasses this spring too.

I agree though, I start getting twitchy about fire as the grasses brown out in late spring. Here, our only choice, would be to leave. We're deep in a valley, with so much woodland, that defensible space is something of an unrealistic ideal.
Country Mouse said…
It's some chemical in the smoke - which is also in liquid smoke. They are not sure quite which chemical as far as I can tell. From a Dave's Garden forum I found this useful link:
Hope this helps with some of my reluctant sprouters!
Christine said…
In restoration, I guess it's the little victories, like seeing a species return on its own. I think all the work you've done on your little part of California is amazing and inspiring!
James said…
I've seen Liquid Smoke around but have never paid it much attention. Good to know it can be used for seeds. I've used the Kirstenbosch blotter papers with fynbos ash and (I was told) gibberelic acid. They worked, but so did some of the alternate methods for germinating fire-adapted seed: boiling water, acid, or setting the pot of seeds on fire. Dangerous fun.
Sue Langley said…
Unfortunately we had some experience with the "North Fork" fire 9 months after we bought our property, which I've written about on the blog. If it had burned more than it did, all the grass and 18" up the trunks of trees, I doubt if we'd ever built our house there.

The surrounding area a mile away was devastated, as was part of the mountain we look on. It has been interesting to watch as the plants grow back. The grass here is mostly non-native that I know of, and they all grew back quickly as did the Goldenfleece, which is a fire follower. All the natives seen before the fire have come back enthusiastically here, but much slower where the devastated area is. Some replanting is being done still, 10 years later.
Thanks for this very informative post and here's hoping for a very boring and uneventful fire season this year.
Country Mouse said…
Wow, Sue - close call. I have to go find that post you mention - after work :-) - I'm glad you found this post informative. As I said on your blog - it's great to make links with others doing restoration work in different parts of California - and elsewhere too!