“Forest Fire Scorches 3,000 Acres in Ulster Park” was the headline of a story in the New York Times on April 21, 2008. The park was Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Hudson Valley. From when it was first reported on April 17 to when it was finally out on April 29, the Outlook Fire burned roughly 2,800 acres in the park. People from 134 state and local agencies came together to control the largest fire to hit the region in 60 years. Recently, another large fire in Minnewaska, the fire at Sam’s Point that burned over 1500 acres in April and May 2016.
These fires were both wildfires, defined as uncontrolled fire in the forest or fields which spreads quickly and is difficult to control. Historically, wildfires were ignited by lightning strikes. Wildfires are a natural component of many different ecosystems; they have helped to maintain healthy native flora, fauna and systems around the world for thousands of years.
Fires help ecosystems in many ways. They help plants by opening up the tree canopy to allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor to enable new seedlings to grow; adding nutrients to the soil and raises the soil pH, giving plants an extra boost of natural fertilizer; reducing the competition for water and soil nutrients by thinning out the underbrush; and decreasing some invasive species and forest pests and diseases. But other invasive species can proliferate after fire, so preventing their spread is an important management strategy.
Some of natural communities in the state — places like Minnewaska, the Shawangunk Ridge, Albany Pine Bush, Long Island Central Pine Barrens and many areas within State Parks are fire-adapted, meaning they can survive wild fires. If fact, the need occasional fires. The plants have special features to survive fires. Pitch pine are one of the best known fire-adapted trees, and they are common in Minnewaska. If a pitch pine tree is damaged in a wild fire, the roots are not always killed and new growth will sprout from the base or the trunk of what appears to be a dead tree. Chestnut oak is another tree that is able to withstand fires due to the thick bark. Other plants have seeds that lie safe below the surface, called a “seed bank”, waiting to grow when conditions are right like when there is space and more light following a fire. And perennials like the ferns and trillium and starflower lie dormant underground (like tulip bulbs in your garden), ready to burst upward every spring and summer.
And some plants are fire dependent, meaning that they need fire to thrive or greatly benefit from fire. Pitch pine is a good example of this. Although some pitch pine cones will open on a hot summer day which drops the seeds to the ground, a fire also exposes the bare soil that helps their seeds to sprout.
Fires can help animals too, including insects, by creating new openings in the forest for the animals to thrive and by leaving snags (dead trees) which provide places for raccoons, squirrels, and woodpeckers and other cavity nesting birds to nest in. Many animals avoid fire by burrowing deeper in to the ground, flying off, or skirting the edge of the fire. Very rarely will an animal be trapped by a fire. Some species of beetles and birds hunt along the edge of the fire, looking for their prey as it escapes the fire.
Life was blooming in Minnewaska just after the Outlook Fire. In coordination with the New York Natural Heritage Program and State Parks. a team of scientists worked together to study effects of the fire on breeding birds, tree regeneration, and vegetation response. Within a couple of weeks, there were hints of green. Approximately a month after the fire had ended, there was abundant new life in the Pine Barrens, with ferns and Canada mayflower sprouting up, trillium and lady’s slipper flowering, and a wood thrush nest with eggs hidden amongst the charred leaf litter. Pitch pines, chestnut oaks, scrub oak, huckleberry, and other trees and shrubs showed new leaves, bright green against the blackened landscape. Not lost after all, but alive and well.
Susan Carver, State Parks and Julie Lundgren, NYNHP