Saturday, August 18, 2007


The NOAA radar shows bright red and yellow storms all over southeast Missouri and western Kentucky tonight. The radar also shows those storms breaking up once they move north, hitting the cool temperatures of the Mississippi River and the small patch of forest across the road that- no doubt -controls weather patterns in the area. Paducah is getting hammered. New Madrid is getting drenched, but I'll probably just have to pick up limbs all day tomorrow from the strong winds that never brought any rain.

The County Commissioner officially declared drought last month. The county has not only seen no rain, but has continued to irrigate the cornfields, leaving the water table significantly lower than average. Trees are already dropping not only their leaves but tiny acorns, smaller even than my thumbnail. The forest has adapted to life without water lately. In the past 80 years, with the completion of the drainage projects, areas that should see standing water for most of the year have seldom seen water for longer than days at a time. The forest has responded with no oak regeneration and an explosion of drought-tolerant species like maples and hackberries. This summer's drought might even be too much for the dry condition-loving trees to deal with. As trees fall from drought and, subsequently, windy conditions, light is able to reach the forest floor, allowing a rich understory to develop in some areas, but no oak regeneration. Bottomland forests need light and water.

In an unnaturally dry swamp and bottomland forest complex, one affected by drainage projects and levee systems, unnatural succession occurs rapidly. No longer do oaks, hickories, cypress and tupelo gum regenerate; as the dominant canopy species die, they are not replaced by others of their kind but drought-tolerant species like maples and hackberries. I was hired to somehow stop that rapid march of forest succession, to stop the maples and hackberries while encouraging the cypress and oaks. To stop that kind of unnatural succession requires the institution of natural processes--dynamic flood patterns and infrequent, light surface fires to remove the leaf litter to allow light to the forest floor.

An act of Congress is required to see dynamic flood patterns restored to the dying forest, but we can apply fire. We might not need to this year, if the lightning continues to strike above the woods tonight. While many agencies (including the USFS and our sister agency) use bulldozers and helicopters to stop wildfires, the agency I work with embraces natural processes, we try to mimic them as much as possible. I've thought about this a lot tonight, knowing how dry the woods are, feeling the wind on the porch and seeing all of the lightning striking above the woods. If one of those mighty oaks catch fire, I'd do what Chief tells me to do: let the fire go, let it burn what it wants to burn, just don't let it damage any neighboring property. Instead of bulldozers and tractors, my agency goes into a wildfire with rakes and backpack blowers, containing the fire but not squelching it.

In May, 2007, Florida's drought-stricken Okefenokee Swamp caught fire. A tree fell on a powerline, igniting the cypress-gum swamp in a fire that ripped through almost 600 acres before it was contained. While it wasn't really a natural fire, it still served a purpose. Because the Okefenokee hadn't seen fire since the 1950s, there was a lot of fuel built up. Flame lengths reached almost 12 feet on the cypress trees, and the forest duff burned for several weeks. The federal staff were hoping for hurricane rains that week. The estimate was "9 inches, no fewer than 9 inches" would have put out the fire which burned underground for days. Today, the Okefenokee Swamp is a lot healthier because of the fire.

The dying woods across the road? The woods with no oaks younger than 100 years? I've decided that light surface fires might not work anymore. Those sad little woods need a large, hot, crown fire that will kill the hackberries and maples which have colonized the past 50 years. Before I go to bed, I'll step out to the porch to make sure I don't smell burning hickory. Knowing that we would never prescribe a massive, hot fire to drought-stricken woods (because it would be irresponsible), I wonder secretly and quietly if we really just need a good wildfire like the Okefenokee received.

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