Study Finds Forests Recover 'Quickly' After Fire, In Tree Years Anyway

Jul 9, 2014

Fire season has come alive here in the Northwest. On Monday 20 homes in Idaho's Sun Valley area were briefly under evacuation when a fire broke out in a nearby canyon. A 5,000-acre fire north of Wenatchee, Wash., continues to threaten houses in the area. Fires can be devastating to people's lives, but according to new research at least certain types of forests recovery fairly quickly.

Odessa Lake and subalpine forest in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, USA.
Credit Philip Higuera / University of Idaho

Keep in mind “quickly” is a relative term here. But for the entire ecosystem of a forest down to the soil composition, to return in under 100 years is pretty good. So say University of Idaho researchers who helped make the finding.

The study looks at high-elevation lodgepole pine forests in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. And it starts at an unlikely source, the bottom of a lake.

Co-author Philip Higuera said layers of pollen from the trees, charcoal from the fire, and traces of the ensuing nitrogen and carbon cycles. All of that can tell you a lot about was happening in the forest at the time.

“We can collect sediment cores and kind of reconstruct the timing of what's happened in the past. Somewhat similar to how you use tree rings, “said Higuera. “Over decades what we could detect in the lake sediment record is the impact of the forest regenerating.”

Higuera said the study shows how fast pine forests recovered for the last 4,000 years. That can be compared to the recovery cycle today with human activity and climate change in the mix.

The paper was also co-authored by scientists from Kansas State University and the University of Colorado, Denver. It was published in May in the journal New Phytologist.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network.