Oregon forests appear devastated by Labor Day wildfires, but scientists have reassuring news. Fire, even at last summer’s historic scale, can be rejuvenating. What’s more, experts say they can help land managers find a better balance between environmental and human needs.
A drive up highway 126 from Springfield can be disheartening. After September’s Holiday Farm Fire, familiar landmarks are gone. Charred trees and hillsides in shades of brown and black dominate the view. But, according to Jim Rivers, a researcher in OSU’s College of Forestry, “Very shortly after that tree death occurs, the ecological community starts to rebound, and whether they’re plants or birds or bees, we see life in those areas.”
Lauren Ponisio is in the Biology Department at U of O. She said many species use fire as an opportunity to move in. “If you look at these forests," said Ponisio, "particularly if you look around Oregon, they tend to be really homogeneous, right, they’re just like the same tree, all about the same age, and there isn’t a lot of light hitting the forest floor.”
Ponisio said varying severities of fire can open up areas to wildflowers, shrubs and different kinds of trees, along with the insects and animals that depend on them. She said this so-called “pyro-diversity” has been shown to lead to broader biodiversity.
Michelle Dennehy with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said their winter surveys showed deer were absent from heavily burned areas of the Holiday Farm Fire, but, “Where we had moderate to lightly-burned areas, we did see green up, and we’re seeing deer, owls other small mammals, and mid-sized mammals.”
Jim Rivers said woodpeckers are some of the first post-fire residents. “In fact," he noted, "in some cases, researchers have observed the birds moving into the previously burned stand when they’re still smoldering. And part of that is there are food resources in the form of different types of wood-boring beetles.”
Rivers said woodpeckers follow their food, and they’re a keystone species: They make nests every time they breed, and their nest cavities are later used by other animals including bluebirds and small owls.
Lauren Ponisio focuses on pollinators. She said researchers know which bees move in a few years after a burn, but she wondered, “If you totally get rid of all of the trees, and not only that, you don’t really have any patches of living trees nearby, because these patches of high severity are getting so large, where does the wildlife come from, to come back into those areas?”
Ponisio said they hope to go to the middle of a severe burn and see how long it takes before they start seeing bees.
Bees need flowers, of course. Ponisio said forest soil contains ‘seed banks’ of plants waiting for the chance to grow. Both she and Rivers are writing proposals to secure funding for research.
The BLM announced this month that thousands of acres of trees burned in the Labor Day fires will be salvage logged. Rivers said logging would negatively affect wildlife, but, “I think the key question isn’t whether it impacts, but it’s to what degree can you balance having habitat for woodpeckers, but also trying to recover the cost of some of those trees.”
Rivers said ongoing research in eastern Oregon is looking at how different levels of logging affect wildlife in burned forests. He said the Cascade Range fires offer a valuable data source.
“Given that there are plans to go forward with salvage logging," he said, "I think that affords us some really nice opportunities to do experiments that will be useful.”
Rivers said it’s important to assess and learn how to best manage production forestry, especially since fires are predicted to be a large part of our future.
Oregon’s blackened forests won’t stay that color for long. By opening up the forest floor to light, there will be blankets of colorful wildflowers and new life in the coming seasons. We'll also have the chance to learn how to better live with fire and logging, while maintaining biodiversity.