Friday, October 9, 2009

Indicating Past Fires

I’m chopping firewood and remembering all the old native Pacific madron trees (Arbutus menziesii) that used to grace pockets of the forest around my house. The trees rarely occur in pure stands. Some had trunks three feet or more in diameter at breast height (DBH). (I don't know who's breast.) Over the past 22 years all but a handful have died a natural death and were resurrected as firewood.

At only 80-100 years, these are so short-lived trees compared to the mixed coastal oak (Quercus agrifolia), Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus), the California coast redwood (Sequoia semperviren) – with a DBH of 8-25 feet - and California bay trees (Umbellularia californica) in “my” forest. This is because the madrone, while drought resistant, is a colonizer of fire-scorched earth. They are among some of the first trees to sprout after a fire. It is said the seeds need fire to germinate. (However, most germination in nurseries is done by freezing the seed before planting in flats or tree tubes.) These trees at first grow more rapidly than the Douglas fir trees associated with a more mature forest. They help to stabilize the soil. Eventually the Douglas fir trees grow above the madrones and shade them to death.

To maintain madrone in a mixed Douglas fir, oak, and redwood forest, the tree needs fire. Not a firestorm in the tops of mature trees, but frequent fires about every five to 50 years. Pacific madrone depends, on these periodic fires to eliminate or greatly reduce the beginning of a Douglas fir overstory.

However, the forest here hasn’t burned in over 100 years. (A 1/2-acre fire last week a mere two miles from my house was quickly extinguished. What a close call and a relief!) The amount of “kindling” (dead trees and shrubs as well as the invasion of foreigners along parts of the forest’s edge like Scotch broom (Cytisus scoparius), which act like little balls of standing gasoline because they burn so easily and hot) on the ground is tremendous. When the next fire comes the burning grasses or Scotch broom will leap up the trunks of the trees to form a crown, or canopy, firestorm. Nothing, except the noble redwoods, will be left. Including my house.

This photo is of one of the few Pacific madrone trees left on the property as it snakes toward sunlight from beneath the maturing Douglas fir trees.

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