A third of the recently burned forests in the American West will never regenerate, according to research led by Colorado State University foresters and published in the journal Ecology Letters.

“In many places, forests are not coming back after fires,” says Camille Stevens-Rumann, assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship at CSU.

When forestry scientists studied burned forests in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, they found no seedlings—none, zero—in one-third of all the sites. These areas will most likely not return as forests, but as shrublands, a consequence of climate change. These forests were too dry to begin with and their fires burned too hot, which killed not only their trees but their ability to grow new trees.

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Healthy aspens growing alongside locusts on our ridge four years after the East Peak Fire of 2013.

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A three-year-old seedling planted on the burned ridge is surrounded by wildflowers and downed trees.

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Shrubs and weeds are replacing centuries-old trees.

Our ridges burned exceptionally hot in the East Peak Fire of 2013, leaving much of our forest with hydrophobic soil–soil that burned so hot it had a waxy cover afterward that  repelled water, hence the name, which translates to “afraid of water.” In the years since the fire, we have not seen a single evergreen seedling grow naturally in the burned areas. Aspens have regenerated beautifully, however; their underground root system survived the fire. Starting in 2014, we’ve been replanting with evergreens from the Colorado State Forest Service Seedling Program. Most of the  pines, spruces, and firs have survived so far, but some have been crowded out by scrub oaks and locusts. The forest seems naturally inclined to come back as shrubland.

Our lack of tree regeneration is typical of what researchers observed.  Across the sites and throughout all the states studied, low–or no–regrowth was the standard.

“We expect variability in how long forests take to recover after wildfires, but the decrease in tree regeneration between the late 20th and early 21st century was pretty striking, and it’s consistent with what we expect to see as climate becomes warmer and drier,” says University of Montana fire ecology Professor Philip Higuera.

“Even if we plant trees in those areas, it’s unlikely to be successful,” says Camille Stevens-Rumann. “We need to start expecting that these landscapes aren’t going to look the same in the future, whether it’s reduced density of trees or no longer a forest.”

One solution is to plant different types of trees that might be more suited to a hotter and drier environment, she says.

We’ll keep planting and watching on our little plot of land. We know the forest will never again be what it was, but with help we hope it will at least be a forest of some sort.

 

 

 

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The bear lived in this singed grove, about 30 feet from the cabin

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The muddy print on our porch measured 6.5 inches. Smaller than our neighbor, so it was a different bear.

We hear a shuffling, then see a movement in front of us, a shape on the boulder less than five feet from us. A furry foot is reaching from the rock to the deck. A big furry foot. Attached to a bear. Seems he’s planning on coming onto the deck.

“Shoo!” I shout. Seriously, this works on black bears. He probably weighs three times as much as me, even though he is fairly small—he looks like he is only a year or two old. Plus he has some pretty serious claws going on. Still, he runs away when I yell at him. He trundles up the hill toward the shed then stops, turns, and looks at me, wondering if I am serious. “Shoo!” I shout again, clapping my hands. This time he lumbers all the way to the road. He stays there and watches us. I yell at him again. He stays put.

He’s the mangy fellow who has invited himself to be our neighbor, moving in within throwing distance of the cabin, in a cove of trees that dips into the creek. His coat is dirty beige and looks like the stuffing from a 100-year-old mattress. But he usually leaves us alone. When we work outside, he calmly grazes in the grass just yards away from us, barely paying attention to us. Until now, we’ve not appeared to be worth his time.

I shout at him again. “Get out of here!” He looks at me. Shrugs. “Shoo! Get!” He finally bumbles down the road, muttering to himself, his ratty butt swaying with each step.

The next morning, we find a muddy paw print right next to our door, facing the cabin. The other print is about five feet up the wall.  We measure them: 6.5 inches. Smaller than the bear we saw, so it was probably a different one. After that, we lock the door at night.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.

 

IMG_3144Our cabin is roughly the size of a two-car garage—20X24-feet—with a deck across most of the front. The giant hollyhock took us about a decade to grow, using seeds from my sister Phyllis’s yard in Pueblo.  It seems happy in it nest next to the rock our neighbor Harold hauled out of the meadow for us; the rock is about 8 feet long and is excellent for little boys to climb on and snakes to live under. My husband, Joe, made the pergola at the far right out of boards from the original deck or son, Josh, and I built more than 20 years ago. Joe also made the swing and the wooden Adirondack chair.  We got the awning four years ago, right after the fire. Because we are remote and our road is unimproved, we had to meet the UPS driver at our mailbox about three miles away and transfer the awning into Mr. Green Jeans, our Toyota 4Runner and schlep it up to the mountain ourselves. We have four small solar panels on the roof that provide 360 watts of power, enough for not much. The cabin and the trees immediately surrounding it were saved by firefighters, angels with picks and hoses.

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Our neighbor Dave called to warn us about the fire at about 6 p.m. June 19, 2013. It began at the Spanish Peaks Scout Ranch, about a mile from our little handmade cabin south of Walsenburg, in the foothills of the East Spanish Peak. We had evacuated by 6:20.

The fire was ultimately named the East Peak Fire and it burned more than 13,000 acres of nearby forest. Ten homes and four outbuildings were lost, including our closest neighbors’ log home.

Thanks to the firefighters, our cabin was fine. Our mountain was not. Wildfire Today has details, photos, and maps of the fire here.

 

 

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Our mountain valley, in the shadow of the East Spanish Peak in southern Colorado

The Japanese have a concept called shinrin-yoku, roughly translated as forest bathing. It originated in 1982 when the country’s forest agency began to encourage wellbeing to combat the threat of suicide in Japan, which at that time was the highest in the world. The idea is to walk deliberately and slowly in the woods, observing, breathing, and appreciating. The result is a drop in blood pressure and in cortisol, a stress hormone.

Our walks in this land are pure shinrin-yoku. We bathe in the light, the air, the calm of nature.

The views are everything as we hike: vast stretches of mountain grass, thick forests, rock outcroppings. And, always, the mountain. We sometimes run into elk and bears along the way. They always dash off when they see us, elegant and silent.

The silence of the land is one of the things I treasure most here. It’s so quiet we can hear the grass rustle in the wind on the other side of the meadow. No cars, no cellphone conversations, no bass sounds from some kid’s stereo, no blasted leaf blowers. Conservationists are fighting to preserve America’s wild spaces to quiet the country’s jittery nerves. The quality of what they call our “soundscape” is a measure of our stress. Quiet places in nature, with their soothing background sounds of bird chirping and water trickling and wind rushing through the trees, are calming. Cities are perpetually tense. Our land, I believe, is one of the quietest places on earth.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from a book I am writing about the East Peak Fire, tentatively titled Burn Scars. Read more about it on my Books page.

It’s 2 a.m. and I am working at a hotel desk in Postojna, Slovenia. I am a college professor from Iowa and I know only halting Slovene, but should anybody need help at this hour, I have all the vocabulary I might need: ne vem and ne razumem—I don’t know and I don’t understand.

Jure, the regular desk clerk is at the train station picking up two of my students who misunderstood the schedule and ended up getting here in the middle of the night instead of yesterday afternoon with the rest of us.

Outside the plate glass window I can see buses that have brought tourists here from Germany and The Netherlands. I pray all those people stay asleep in their rooms above me.

The town’s one taxi driver doesn’t work the graveyard shift, so I convinced Jure to pick up my tardy students.

“But who will take care of the hotel?” he asked.

“I will,” I answered.

“What if somebody needs help?” he asks.

“You will be gone only a few minutes,” I answer.

He finally agrees.

We talk at about 10 p.m., after which he tells me to go up to my room and sleep. He will call me when it is time for the train to arrive and for me to take over the desk. I cannot sleep for worry. What if Kate and Jennifer aren’t on the train after all?  What if they’ve been robbed or attacked? What if, what if? Read the rest of the story here, on my Psychology Today blog.