“Southern California, for example, has a Mediterranean climate,” explains Dr. Martha Witter, a fire ecologist for the National Park Service. “So every single year, there’s little to no rainfall from about March to October or November. The vegetation becomes very dry and susceptible to burning. When fall comes around, and you’ve had about five or six months without rain, that’s the time of year when we get the Santa Ana winds. If you have the combination of dry vegetation, Santa Ana winds, and you happen to get that ignition, it can start a fire under those conditions that can be very difficult to control or stop.”
Witter studies all aspects of how a wildfire can affect a park environment — from what happens to the plants and animals to how the soil and water change. Her research helps the teams of experts deployed to parks after a fire be prepared to effectively protect and restore burned environments. Many times, she’s on site — assessing damage before a fire is even out.
With prime hiking season coming up, we asked Dr. Witter to explain the basics of wildfire recovery in the days, months, and years after the embers die out.
The three major stages of how parks recover their trails after a wildfire:
1. Initial Stabilization
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HUGE SHOUTOUT to the Asheville Interagency Hot Shot Crew! They along with the @u.s.forestservice and others, quickly contained a fire in the Linville Gorge Wilderness that was reported Sunday. This fire was human-caused. We can do better. Be responsible when in the Wilderness. Clean up and leave no trace. Also a shoutout to @nicholasreedmassey who captured these pictures! Nick spends a huge amount of time in the Gorge making it a better place for all of us. From working on trails to assisting with search and rescue! Give @nicholasreedmassey some appreciation and follow his work! #booneview #ashevilleinteragencyhotshotcrew
Right in the aftermath of the fire, we have teams that come in and do assessments. We call them Burned Area Emergency Response teams (BAER). These people — who are comprised of foresters, hydrologists, geologists, and more — will come and they will inspect the trails. They’ll inspect the roads as well. A lot of the fire crews, before they are demobilized, will go out and check trees along roads and trails. Those teams inspect the trails to identify what areas are going to need work after rainfall. They identify which areas are dangerous and need to be closed until they can be cleaned up.
There’s a lot of activity that goes on in the aftermath of a fire. Especially in those first days.