A year after it burned, the Tanana Flats is sprouting back to life

Posted: Friday, July 05, 2002

ON THE TANANA FLATS, Alaska (AP) -- Their boots crunched in the charred landscape and small puffs of dust and ash rose from the ground as Dale Haggstrom and Tom Paragi picked their way through a patch of blackened forest Monday on the Tanana Flats.

It was as if they were trying to pick their way through a giant game of Pick Up Sticks. Downed, blackened trees, killed by the fire, crisscrossed the land, leaning on top of one another or other burned trees that were still standing. More charred trees littered the ground.

''There's no doubt it looks ugly at first,'' Haggstrom said, looking around at the blackened landscape surrounding him, ''but most people don't understand what it looks like when it comes back.''

But Haggstrom and Paragi do, which is the reason they had traveled some 30 miles up the Tanana and Wood rivers by riverboat to reach the burned area. Habitat biologists for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, they were on a scavenger hunt, searching for signs of life in the black carpet that was a green floor of vegetation before it burned in last year's 114,000-acre Survey Line Fire south of Fairbanks.

''Here's some sweet coltsfoot,'' Paragi said, spotting a small green plant that resembled rhubarb poking up through the black floor.

Haggstrom found a downed black spruce tree with a clump of cones at the top. He picked it up, held out one hand and shook it.

''If they've been scorched, they'll be dropping seeds,'' he says as a small shower of seeds sprinkled into his hand.

The two biologists walked up a small hill with burned apsen, birch and spruce trees still standing.

''There's some cordylis,'' said Paragi, spying a small clump of pretty pink and yellow flowers on tall green stems.

The flower only sprouts after a fire and lives for just two years, Paragi noted. ''They basically stay in the seed bed until a fire comes through and wakes them up,'' he said.

As Haggstrom and Paragi made their way through the burn, they found the beginning stages of life everywhere they turned.

''Lots of moose tracks,'' Haggstrom observed, spotting the telltale hoof prints in the burned forest floor.

There was Labrador tea, a small green plant that resembles rosemary. There were liverworts. There were small patches of horsetail growing where the fire had burned down to the mineral soil.

''Conditions are really good if you have that stuff,'' Haggstrom said.

Fire does to the forest what plowing does to the land, the biologists said. It turns the ground over. Without fire, forests stagnate. Trees grow old and die. The animals that use them move out.

''Fighting fire goes against everything the boreal forest is about,'' Haggstrom said. ''It's a necessity because we live here.''

''To me, there's no such thing as a bad fire, not in this system,'' he said, holding his hands out. ''They all do the same thing, open up the canopy. That's what it's all about up here, getting that sunlight on the ground.''

Paragi came to a small aspen sapling that had sprouted up through the black carpet. The bright green sapling was only about a foot high with no more than a dozen leaves on it.

When adult aspen trees burn, their root systems send out millions of shoots. The hotter the fire burns, the more shoots it puts out. ''These things will be waist high by fall,'' Paragi said, bending down to examine the tree. ''This is super nutritious stuff for moose. The first year it's like candy for them.

''They'll come in here and just strip the leaves right off like this,'' he said, bending down and stripping the leaves off with his hand.

Small green trees surrounded the bases of burned alder and birch trees, a process called ''suckering.'' When the adult trees burn, new trees shoot up from the root systems around the dead tree.

''That's a good example of suckering,'' Haggstrom said, pointing to the stump of a burned birch tree surrounded by a circle of small, green trees.

Even things that are dead as a result of the fire will help provide life. Dead trees left standing will provide snags for raptors such as red-tailed hawks hunting microtines like voles and shrews that move into a burn. Dead trees will also provide homes for hole nesters like woodpeckers. The trees that fall provide cover for animals like marten, snowshoe hare and grouse as they raise their young.

At one point, a lesser yellowlegs, a shorebird that nests in Alaska, flushed up at Paragi's feet squealing.

''Watch your steps,'' Paragi said to a reporter standing next to him, ''there's a nest somewhere close.''

Just a few feet away, sat a neat pile of four yellow and brown eggs camouflaged against the burned ground.

''It looks like massive destruction but there's an awful lot of life here if you know what to look for,'' said Paragi, as he walked away from the nest.

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