Tag Archives: Fire

From Ashes to Awesome: Sam’s Point

In April 2016, a wildfire engulfed around 2,000 acres of the Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains. The “Gunks” (a nickname for the Shawangunks) are well-known not only for climbing, but also for the globally unique community of high altitude dwarf pitch pine barrens which hold some interesting and charismatic flora and fauna. This year marks one year after the fire and it has been a very interesting time to be at Sam’s Point. Park staff have taken advantage of what some may consider destruction to learn more about the unique ecosystem that evolved along with fire. Student Conservation Association interns, State Park staff, and volunteer citizen scientists have researched how the ecological community at Sam’s Point is responding to the fire.

In the weeks after the 2016 fire, the State Parks staff set up twenty random plots within the pine barrens to study the regrowth of the forest after the fire. One year later, we continue to collect data on the changes that are taking place as the ecosystem bounces back. At each research site, pitch pines are measured and any new growth, or lack thereof, is recorded. We also search for pitch pine seedlings and this year we found more of them in our plots than last year! Pitch pines are a fire dependent species – this means that throughout their existence they have evolved to grow in areas with high incidence of fire and have adapted to survive and thrive in these areas. Perhaps most importantly to pitch pine survival, their pine cones need extreme heat, like the high heat produced from fire, to open up to release their seed. Although the high intensity of the fire may have damaged many of the older pitch pines, we can see the beginnings of a new forest through our observations.

At four of the 20 fire-regeneration plots, we took photos to collect visual data on changes over time. We are able to see changes in vegetation during the growing season and are able to compare vegetation levels from this year to last year. After a fire burns an ecosystem, the intensity of the burn creates a mosaic pattern on the land, making patches of different habitat. For those areas that are more severely burned, different plants may be found in those areas than areas that were less severely burned.  Through our data collection, we compare what is happening in different areas of the forest that were affected differently after the fire. We also look at any changes that occur over time as plants recolonize the scorched earth.

Changes over time, State Parks
Photo Points taken by Park staff and interns at Sam’s Point Area fire regeneration plots showing how the forest understory has changed in the past year, photo by State Parks and SCA.

Another study that was conducted this year was a breeding bird survey, where we compared the different bird species found in the burned area of the pine barrens to birds that were found in the unburned areas. Since the fire burned nearly half of the Sam’s Point Area, we looked at whether this change in habitat displaced breeding birds, welcomed new species, or if the number of breeding bird stayed the same. Interns, staff, and volunteers braved early mornings in May and June to conduct surveys in the park. Most often, we heard the eastern towhee telling us to “drink your tea”, the prairie warbler’s ascending song, and the “witchity witchity” of the common yellowthroat.  These species were found all over the park and we did not see many differences between the species we found within the burned area and outside of it. Generally, the differences we found had more to do with other aspects of habitat (i.e. birds were closer to water, closer to deciduous trees, etc.) than to the damage from the fire.

Fire has a long history on the Shawangunk Ridge and pitch pines are not the only species that has adapted to thrive with fire. Up until the 1960’s, berry pickers swarmed the mountainsides in the summer, picking huckleberry and blueberry and selling their juicy finds to city dwellers. Sometimes, they set fire to the ridge so that the next year, their bounty would be sweeter (in both size and taste!) Going further back into the history of the ridge, the Native Americans would also set similar, controlled fires, which today we would call prescribed burns, to keep the ecosystem healthy and productive. Although the 2016 fire was an intense wildfire and not a prescribed burn, we received the bounty of increased berry production in 2017. In mid-July the blueberries flourished, and modern day berry pickers, as well as animals that eat berries, such as chipmunks, squirrels, deer, birds, and bear, were able to indulge in these treats. By the end of July, the huckleberries had joined in on the fun so that at our August Berry Bonanza event, visitors could taste test and compare blueberry and huckleberry and choose their preference before they entered the berry-lined trails.

The 2016 wildfire at Sam’s Point has given us a lot to think about in the last year. We continue to learn more about our unique little corner of the world, and we share what we have learned with our visitors. We are also able to enjoy the beauty of the rebirth of an ecosystem. This strange, otherworldly beauty inspires park-goers with a new type of scenery they may have never seen before, making this one of a kind ecosystem seem even more special. To learn more about Sam’s Point Area of Minnewaska State Park Preserve or to get involved in Citizen Science visit https://parks.ny.gov/parks/193 , or even better, come visit us in person! We look forward to sharing our park with you.

Post by Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern

Featured image by  Leah Rudge, Student Conservation Association Intern

Fire Dependent Communities

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.

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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