There are several natural disasters that can alter the ecological make-up of an area. Widespread tree disease, severe winds, and intense ice storms can all seriously damage or destroy the dominant members of a forest community. However, the most catastrophic force of nature is fire, as a major blaze can significantly impact more than just the composition of trees that cover a given location.
Unlike other natural calamities, fire can wipe out most of the plants that root in an area. In an ice storm, or a major wind event, it is primarily the older and taller trees that are subject to the greatest devastation. Seedlings, saplings, the various shrubs that form the understory and the array of herbaceous plants that grow on the forest floor often benefit from the increase in sunlight that result when the canopy has been drastically thinned or eliminated. During an intense fire, however, the entire plant community can be obliterated.
As would be expected, the wildlife that resides in an area ravaged by fire would also experience significant change. Some larger animals, like deer, coyotes and bobcats may continue to travel through a scorched setting en route to places not impacted by fire. Many smaller creatures that formerly inhabited that site may not be able to reestablish a population in the affected area. Creatures like salamanders and shrews both require a damp carpet of dead leaves and needles under the shade of a fairly thick canopy in which to live. An open field or a large, brushy clearing is subject to unfavorable thermal conditions during sunny days in summer, and results in a microclimate that is too dry for these ground dwellers. Warblers, vireos and squirrels find a lattice of branches and limbs essential for placing their nest and obtaining food.
While a severe fire can destroy the current ecological state of an area, there are numerous forms of life that are quick to colonize any site in which the competition has been eliminated. The aspens, with their tiny, cottony seeds that can travel for miles on strong breezes, can reseed a burned over site in only a few years. Because the aspens are fast growing, it doesn’t take long before a young forest may sprout on that site.
Likewise, it takes less than a decade for the seeds of white birch, white pine and Scotch pine to find their way to these open places and sprout in the abundant sunlight. Raspberry, blackberry, and several species of cherry are also quick to sprout and root in places in which there is little competition for light, despite the fact that the soil may not contain many nutrients.
In places where a hot fire incinerated all the organic matter in the soil, a plant community of ferns, grass and low shrubs will eventually develop. Thickets of waist high bracken fern along with dense patches of blueberries and huckleberries, and scattered clumps of meadowsweet are able to grow where only sand and ash exist.
Each of these unique settings harbors its own wildlife community and is able to support numerous transients that visit to feast on the various berries and seeds that several of these plants yield at certain times of the summer season. The importance of a diverse food source for wildlife is especially helpful in maintaining the health of an animal population.
It doesn’t take long for life to return following a fire, and then for the area to change again. The shrubs and trees that grow in open settings tend to be fast growing and short-lived. After they have matured, their own seedlings are unable to sprout in the immediate area, as the shade the parent casts is sufficient to prevent their offspring from growing properly. The pioneer stage of succession that forms after a fire tends to transition into more advanced plant communities within only four or five decades.
It has been almost a century since the Adirondacks experienced an intense, widespread forest fire. While there have been numerous, localized blazes over the years, these fires were confined by the rapid response of experienced DEC Forest Rangers and hard-working volunteers from fire departments across the Park.
While fire is capable of destroying a stand of timber, especially softwoods, faster than any modern logging operation, and do more damage, the ecological communities that form afterwards have their role in nature’s intricate web of life. Despite the ugly scars on the landscape, nature is far quicker to recover than most people could imagine.
A version of this story first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack in 2012. Read more about Adirondack wildfires here.
Photos: Above, a fire just south of Pottersville in April 2012 (Jonathan Sinopoli photo); and below, the 1965 Pottersville Fire (courtesy nysforestrangers.com).