We may not need to brace ourselves for “The Big One”, as do San Francisco and Sanford & Son, but we should prepare for worsening disturbances. Wildfire can be a natural disturbance of unpredictably enhancing qualities; but in a climate chaos century, in a fragmented landscape, with invading exotic organisms, wildfire may become a still unrulier beast. We would do well, as residents of New York’s great Adirondack Park, to ponder fires of the future and study possible alternatives to the present state policy of zero tolerance – full suppression of all wildfires.
Champlain Valley… [forests] probably did burn occasionally before European settlers altered natural patterns, and the may want to burn more, with future droughts.
Fire is a powerful force, which may prove more powerful than its wielder when used as a tool. Yet fighting every little fire may mean inviting an eventual conflagration that no human work can squelch. Presently, most of Adirondack Park grows moist forests that seldom if ever burn under natural circumstances, but in the Champlain and Saint Lawrence Valleys grow some drier forests that probably did burn occasionally before European settlers altered natural patterns, and they may want to burn more, with future droughts.
Such were the thoughts of George Davis and me a month after Split Rock Wild Forest ground fire as we strode the newly cut trail to the acre and a half atop a rocky hill west of Orebed Point that burned in early August. The fire apparently was ignited by a lightning strike, as George confirmed when he found this White Pine near the summit with a long linear scar down the trunk and charred roots.
As soon as the fire was reported, on August 6 or 7, New York Department of Environmental Conservation sent to the trailhead on Lakeshore Road many trucks of personnel and equipment to fight the fire, and even had a chopper flying overhead. (Seeing and hearing the assembled force, I initially thought: Oh bother, another Dannemora outbreak!) Fire fighters cut a trail to the burning hill-top, drove in tools on all-terrain vehicles, and successfully stopped the fire.
Some forests are meant to burn, and… suppressing small fires may mean inviting bigger, more dangerous blazes in the future.
Was this the right response, though, and will prompt suppression be the best response next time a wildfire starts in the West Champlain Hills? The weather this summer – unusually wet first half, unusually dry second – hints at possible future changes in natural disturbance regimes. Should DEC close and rehabilitate the new trail, or risk soil erosion and exotic species invasions to let it remain open as a foot-path to a rare site? Might a mechanized response (apparently here including ATVs, chainsaws, and a helicopter) do more damage to the forest than a wildfire generally does?
I suspect so, and I suspect our forests will soon suffer and our own communities may eventually pay a high price if we continue to view wildfire as an enemy. Some forests are meant to burn, and (though research is not complete in our area) the composition of plant communities can be altered, and biological diversity diminished, where natural disturbances are suppressed. If lessons from the conifer forests of the West and Southeast apply to deciduous/conifer forests of the Northeast in a warming climate, suppressing small fires may mean inviting bigger, more dangerous blazes in the future.
DEC is not to blame for any of this; the Department is merely implementing policies long ago put in place – put in place before fire ecology or climate change was fully understood. Indeed, apart from its use of mechanized equipment, DEC appears to have been environmentally sensitive in its squelching of the recent fire. Trampling and erosion at the burn site do not look much greater than one might find in an area that had been allowed to burn. Already, just a month or so after the fire, oaks, Pitch Pine, blueberry, serviceberry, dogbane, and other plants are re-sprouting. The fire burned spottily, like most natural fires do, creating a mosaic of varying conditions, from charred to untouched, with plenty of plants still alive.
My own inclination (from rambling these hills extensively but also exploring many forests, burned and unburned, in the West and South) is to let natural, lightning-ignited fires burn in wildlands, but suppress human-caused fires and blazes that get too near homes. In any case, in a time when we meddlesome humans are altering not only biotic communities but the very climate that molded these life forms, we would do well to reconsider our zero tolerance attitude toward wildfire. I urge my fellow Adirondack residents to ask the DEC to do a thorough ecological assessment of wildfire policy on Forest Preserve lands in Adirondack and Catskill Parks, in view of a destabilizing climate. I urge neighbors not to build new houses in the forest and to take precautions (like metal roofs, storing combustibles safely, clearing kindling around house …) for those homes already built in the woods. If we learn to live more compatibly with wild Nature, perhaps we can welcome the wildfire next time as a cleansing and diversifying force.