The Legacy of Fire: Creative Destruction in Adirondack Forests

by Robin Wall Kimmerer | April 2016, Nature and Environment

When I was a kid, I thought I had discovered the perfect answer to the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. The long hike up the mountain, the snug little cabin and the crowning glory of a fire tower with a 360-degree view, plus an occasional hiker stopping by for a visit, seemed like an idyllic life. The network of fire observation towers was an important part of land stewardship in the Adirondacks, but by the time I was old enough to sign up, fire spotting was no longer a viable career. Today about 20 fire towers remain, nostalgic reminders of a time when our woodlands were frequently ablaze. They mark the story of a changing forest and changing culture.

From a summit today you may see the land’s memory of fire in fall’s flame-yellow swaths of paper birch foliage. On a trail you may hear it amid trembling aspen, leaves all aflutter. These stands are markedly different from the mixed forest of beech, yellow birch, maple and assorted conifers that blankets most of the region.

Many of these paper birch and aspen forests originated over a century ago, when forest fires raced across the Adirondacks, creating the perfect habitat for these fast growing pioneers. Composed of a single species, uniform in age and size, the first generation forest after a fire is filled with light and has a parklike feel with plenty of open space between the high canopy and the sparse forest floor. You can still find these stands on White Birch Ridge near Indian Lake or Kempshall and Blueberry Mountains in the town of Long Lake.

The fire towers were much needed after irresponsible logging left the landscape covered with “slash,” spruce and pine limbs that were left behind and dried to a crisp in the sun. The new logging railroads traveling from Old Forge to Lake Clear threw a shower of sparks over the tinderbox of slash, igniting huge blazes. Columns of smoke rising from a cut-over landscape were a common sight. Between 1888 and 1914 more than a million acres of timber were destroyed; many of the stands of birch and aspen we see today arose from the great fires of 1903 and 1908. From the 1920s through the 1960s the fire-fighting capacity in the Adirondacks was exemplary—and necessary. But, as Jerry Jenkins points out in the Adirondack Atlas, “forest regrowth is its own fire protection.” As the forests recovered from logging and burning, natural processes were re-established that inhibit fire.

The Asbestos Forest
The mature, undisturbed forest of the Adirondacks, composed of conifers and the hardwood trio of beech-birch-maple, has been described as “the asbestos forest.” Forest ecologists attribute its low flammability to precipitation that is evenly distributed throughout the year and deep snow cover that keeps the soils moist. The well-known Adirondack cloud cover and the thick, multilevel canopy keep sun from drying the forest floor, so potential fuels decay into spongy humus, which also inhibits fire. Millennia of leaf fall has created a blanket of moist organic duff that soaks up water. Even if a burn did get started, natural barriers to fire movement such as rivers, bogs and wetlands prevent spreading. The “natural fire return interval” has been estimated at more than 1,000 years for our pre-settlement forest; in contrast, a dry chaparral forest out West is 30 to 130 years for the same cycle.

Here, so-called “natural ignition” is very uncommon, accounting for fewer than five percent of our fires. The region is justly famous for the rumbling summer thunderstorms that produce numerous lightning strikes. However, our thunderstorms are usually accompanied by a deluge of rain. Lightning can strike an old pine snag, and embers protected in the dry, crumbly trunk can gain strength and emerge as a fire—as in the case of a 1913 blaze near Keene Valley—but this is rare.

Most forest fires in the Ad­i­­­­rondacks today are human caused, frequently started as debris fires that get out of control around dwellings. Unattended campfires are also a significant cause. Last September’s Crowfoot fire near Crane Pond originated from an abandoned campfire and burned 130 acres.

Human-caused fire is not a new phenomenon for the Adirondacks: The region was used extensively by both Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Algonquin peoples as a hunting and fishing ground as well as for berry picking. Their traditional ecological knowledge of land management included the skillful use of controlled burning, which helped maintain thriving blueberry populations and attracted deer to meadows with lush young grass. This small-scale periodic burning increased the local biodiversity as well as the food supply.

Destruction and Creation
The Haudenosaunee creation story, which is rich in lessons of how humans came to be and might be in the future, in­­­cludes two important figures, the twin grandsons of Skywoman, who were known as Flint and Sapling. These mythic boys of very different natures are not thought of as good or bad, but as representing the twin forces of creation and destruction at work in the world. The job of humans is understanding how to keep those forces in balance.

Those two elements are embodied in fire, which can be both creative and destructive. The effects of fire are influenced by the intensity or heat of the burn, its size and its frequency, which in turn are influenced by its location. A very hot fire, fed by dry windy conditions and ample fuel, can be devastating, burning not only the trees but the soil itself, leaving behind a sterile wasteland. The drought-prone pine lands of the Rockefeller estate at Bay Pond in Franklin County remain a barren of lichens and blueberries with little forest regeneration, nearly as gray today as the ash left by the fire more than a century ago. More recently, in 1999, a campfire on Noonmark Mountain ignited an intense duff fire, which burned away the soil.

In contrast, small low-intensity fires here give rise to berries and biodiversity; they produce habitat for an array of animals not adapted to the deep forest. They are creative fires, renewing the landscape by resetting the clock of ecological succession. The dominant canopy is removed, making way for a sequence of other species, but eventually the forest returns. By maintaining a mosaic of patches of forest in different developmental stages, from the early pioneer communities to old-growth forest, the landscape is constantly renewed.

The nature and location of the forest itself can influence the likelihood and the impact of a fire. Last year’s Crowfoot fire occurred in a primarily oak woodland; the southern exposure had dried the forest floor. Oak leaves don’t decay very quickly and accumulate in loose, rustling drifts that can carry a ground fire. In contrast, the wet blanket of decomposing maple leaves inhibits fire. Fortunately, oak trees are resistant to ground fire (while maples are not), so the net effect of the fire is to perpetuate the less-common oak forest and the habitats and food supply it provides. David Winchell, of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), commented that the fire removed accumulated blowdown and will increase habitat for deer, bears, squirrels and other wildlife that depend on acorns. Nonetheless, the DEC policy is that all wildland fires in the Adirondacks will be suppressed.

Fire is not the only, nor the most important, source of the natural disturbances that create diversity here. Windstorms are the most prevalent form of creative destruction, yielding forest patches from the size of a single tree windfall to the vast swaths cut by the 1995 derecho. In the absence of fire, pioneer species in the Adirondacks rely primarily on such disturbances for their regeneration.

The Twilight of Pioneer Trees
Paper birch is an iconic tree of the North Woods, from its traditional use by indigenous peoples for lodges, containers, medicine and the marvel of birch bark canoes. Native peoples of the Great Lakes used controlled burns to ensure a steady supply of this all-important material. But this keystone species is disappearing from the Adirondacks as the fires disappear, because paper birch flourishes on burned-over ground. Paper birch seeds are tiny and can only germinate on newly exposed soil. Eroded banks and sandy shorelines can provide small patches of birch habitat, but if you look for large expanses of paper birch today you’ll see the echoes of the fires a century ago. The beautiful fast-growing birches are short-lived, with a maximum lifespan of about 100 years. Today, they have mostly fallen, papery white skeletons on the forest floor beneath a maple canopy.

Whether forest recovery is led by paper birch or by quaking aspen and big-tooth aspen might depend in part on the season of the burn. Ignition is most common in early spring and in the fall, when the sun reaches the forest floor and dries it out. The great fire of 1903, which destroyed more than 400,000 acres, began in leaf litter dried by strong spring winds, while the 600,000-acre fire of 1908 began in the fall in slash piles that had dried all summer. Regardless of burn season, spring or fall, there are seeds of pioneer species ready to colonize the bare ground. Paper birch trees release their seeds in the late fall and winter when they skitter across the snow. The aspens don’t produce seed until June; both species have adapted to the different fire seasons.

A host of other species flourish after a fire. Dead and dying trees draw large numbers of insects, which in turn support an increase in the woodpecker population. The grassy meadows that follow create a surge in habitat for small rodents and their hungry predators, like hawks, owls, foxes and coyotes.

Soon after a burn the ground may be covered by a carpet of mosses, such as the silvery Bryum or the Haircap mosses that quickly stabilize the soil surface. There is even a moss called Funaria, which has fire-resistant spores that are stored in the soil, waiting for a fire to create the op­­­portunity they need to grow. Their presence helps retain moisture and provides a seedbed for later plants to colonize. Among the most striking of the post-fire plants is the aptly named fireweed, with its gorgeous rose-colored blooms on stems that can be up to four feet tall.

Fruits Follow Fire
Bracken fern, grasses and tangles of berry brambles welcome the burned-over ground. It is said that one of the original twins created the delicious berries and his destructive twin added the thorns. And where there are berries there are bears to feast upon them. In the Adirondacks, fruits follow fire.

One of the favorites of bears and foxes and birds of every kind is the small tree known as fire cherry. With their beautiful striped red bark they are easily recognizable on burned ground and wherever disturbance has created sunny openings. They make buckets of gleaming sour red cherries, dangling on a long stem, that draw flocks of birds when they ripen.

Being a plant that needs fire to flourish creates a dilemma in a landscape like the Adirondacks, where fire is not very common. To colonize burned ground, the plants have to get their seeds to those relatively rare patches. Some plants find fire by sending their seeds out on aerial reconnaissance—like the fluffy catkins of aspens or the tiny brown paper kites of birches. To be successful they have to blanket the area with seeds and hope that a few land in the right place. Other plants don’t take the risk of their seeds not finding fire: they simply sit and wait for a fire to come to them. That can be a long wait, so their seeds have great longevity and are stored in the soil as a reservoir of seeds that lie dormant until catastrophe strikes. Fire, or pin, cherries excel at this. The birds love their fruit and so disperse the seeds all through the forest, but especially beneath the original parent trees.

These fire-cherry seeds cannot germinate in shade or in deep leaf litter, but they don’t die, they just wait. When eventually a fire or a windstorm comes along and clears away the canopy, the seeds are right there, ready to germinate and take advantage of all the sun and nutrients. It is a bit of a mystery, though, how the seeds know when it is safe to germinate. How could a buried seed know that the forest canopy has disappeared?

A little brown seed might not look like much, but it contains pretty sophisticated equipment: a chemical system that allows it to detect and measure the wavelengths of light that it is receiving. The spectrum of wavelengths differs between the full sun and the light filtered by a tree canopy, and so by reading the incoming light the seeds can know when to germinate. And the result is a thick stand of fire cherries, loaded with fruit, ready to start the cycle again. Raspberries and blackberries have similar capacities, which is why berry pickers flock to old burn sites.

Fire incidence varies, of course, with drought and forest health. Whenever the soils and accumulated fuels on the forest floor become dry, the risk of fire increases. Stands of insect- and disease-killed trees also make fire more likely. The shifts in precipitation and increases in forest pests and pathogens associated with the climate crisis may spell a change in the fire frequency here, as they have in the American West, and require changes in our approach to forest stewardship.

The Adirondacks continues to be an exceptional living laboratory for understanding forested ecosystems and human relationships within them. There was a time when human-caused fires were a destructive force, with intensity and scale that challenged the ability of the landscape to respond. Lands that a century ago were charred stumps and scraggly aspens in the aftermath of careless logging are today rich mature forests. The land and the people are resilient here in what Bill McKibben calls the “second-chance wilderness.” Fire has returned as an occasional creator of biodiversity, and not a destroyer of forests. The fire towers of my childhood are emblems of the role of hu­­mans in creating balance between the forces of destruction and renewal.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a plant ecologist, John Burroughs Award–winning writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She serves as the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment and is the author, most recently, of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, published by Milkweed Editions in 2013.

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