August 12, 2020
The western wildfires have received a lot of attention over the last decade. The dry conditions and high winds have resulted in extremely hot fast-moving fires that are hard to contain. When a fire burns through the forest it leaves charred earth and blackened trees in its wake. This is seen as an eyesore by many. The fires also threaten to burn the housing in the sparsely populated areas. Ironically, suppression of naturally occurring fires is another reason the fires burn so hot. Fires clear out the undergrowth, dead wood, and pine needles that fuel today’s devastating burns.
During the lockdown Melissa has been building her store of succulents. While this started out as a hobby, it has quickly blossomed (pun intended?) into a potential business opportunity. After potting and acclimating some of her cacti, she arranged them on a table on our front stoop. This area is covered so it gets sun but not the full heat of the day. It is also sheltered from much of the rain which we have received. It seems the worst thing for cacti is overwatering, not drought. They are flourishing amid our heat and intermittent cooling rains. This last week some have flowered, and nearly all have sprouted “babies.”
Over the last decades biologist have found fire is necessary for growth and rebirth of many plant species. Trees in fire-prone areas develop thicker bark to resist the fire and drop their low hanging limbs to keep the fire from getting to the green needles. Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) is a good example. This fire-survival strategy allows for clearing of undergrowth without damage to the trees. In environments where hot, fast moving fires are frequent, species like the Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) have developed very thick, hard cones that are literally glued shut with a strong resin. These “serotinous” cones can hang on the tree for years. When a fire sweeps through it melts the resin, releasing the seeds. The clear land and nutrients released provide excellent conditions for the new “babies” to grow.
THOUGHTS: The natural role of fire in reproduction of trees and undergrowth illustrate how little we understand about how our world is intertwined. While setting controlled fires is beginning to help, too often it is the uncontrolled fire that rages through the forest burning everything in its path. While we fight the pandemic, it illustrates how globalization is forcing us to cooperate (or die). Early globalization occurred as Europeans branched out and colonized the world. They brought disease to the Indigenous people they encountered. It is estimated anywhere from a low of 12 Million to a high of 112 million people lived in the Americas prior to 1492. The native population declined to less than 6 million by 1650. Native populations are again being devastated by this new disease. For many, Columbus Day is not something to celebrate. Change is coming and it starts with you.