I am back from a week on the fire line, covering the savage Rock Creek fire. It was a welcome change from covering the city, and it got me out into the country, even if it seems like half of the province is on fire.
After covering the human aspects of the Rock Creek fire – and there are many, from the tragedy of 82-year-old Margaret Bartley losing her possessions for the fourth time in her life, to the heroism of the families along the Kettle River East Road who defied government orders to evacuate, only to end up saving their own homes when the fire threatened to double back – I wanted to look at the impact the fire had on the forest itself.
Even now, the forest is slowly – very slowly – starting to regenerate.
What follows is something of a photo essay of what I found. I’ve also included it as an embedded photo gallery in Wordress, complete with descriptions. The self-assignment was both disturbing and cathartic; I had stopped taking photos long ago. Documenting this fire, the death it brought and the life it renewed, brought back some satisfaction in my photography, even though it frankly still stinks.
Many wild animals were caught in the fast-moving fire. Deer, elk, coyotes, badgers – from the fastest to the slowest of animals – were caught in the fire.
Their carcasses become the first sources of protein for the animals that return, from ravens and crows to coyotes and other scavengers.
But the forest is also not entirely dead. Big Ponderosa pines whose bark isn’t totally eaten through will survive. Their pine cones, in fact, require a forest fire to release their nuts, so over the coming years the area will sprout small pine seedlings.
Grasses whose roots weren’t burned have also started to grow again, and they are shelter for ant colonies and other ground-living insects. On the very edges of the burn plants and grasses are starting to thow seed that the wind will scatter.
Glen Burgess, the Rock Creek incident commander for the B.C. Wildfire Service, said the forest may look dead, but it is still alive in many places.
“By next spring, this place will be green with grass,” he said. “Within a year or two fireweed will move in and the place will look purple.”
Burgess says some of the trees themselves will survive, among them the tough Ponderosa pine. As long as its thick bark hasn’t been burned down to the cambium or vascular layer, and green needles survive, then the tree can survive.
“Forest fires come through about every 20 or 30 years,” he said. “These are tough trees. They are designed to survive fires as long as they don’t get burned too badly.”
But the fire has still caused a lot of damage and killed a lot of wildlife. It will take years for the forest to regenerate. As it does, it will go through a succession of plants that will become home to successions of different animals and birds.