We spent some time in the area of the Wilderness Trail Fire last Friday night and again mid-day on Saturday. It was astonishing and sad to see it with our own eyes.
And yet it was inspiring because life finds a way.
We spent a lot of time on Staley Lake Road and the first impression was the fire must have been incredibly hot in this location because of how black and charred the landscape was -- from ground to treetop. Every step we took through this area threw up a small cloud of ash and our white socks soon became tinged with gray.
The fire also revealed things that had long been hidden by prolific grasses, sedges and blueberries: trash discarded by careless travelers and the charred vertebra of a long-dead white-tailed deer.
One section of Staley Lake Road that overlooks a pothole on the west side of the road allows for a vista of sorts -- the terrain goes down then up in the distance. Even though nearly everything in sight was burned, it was clear that the fire did not burn evenly or run in a straight line. The second image shows that some trees that had been killed by the fire still held onto their now-brown needles while the needles on other trees burned completely. In the late evening sun, it was striking and oddly beautiful.
We were also surprised by how much life there was in the aftermath of the fire. Clearly the Kirtland's Warblers have abandoned the stand, but we recorded more than 20 species of birds in the fire area on Friday evening, including Eastern Towhee, Vesper Sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee and Hermit Thrush. Because the fire only burned plants on the surface, any ants underground could emerge after the fire to act as nature's cleanup crew. And only two weeks after the fire, plants were emerging from their roots and some areas were surprisingly green. On Saturday we found a white-tailed deer grazing on these freshly emerged shoots.
Maybe the best sign that this ecosystem would recover was the open jack pine cones with seeds smattered on the charred forest floor. With a little rain, these seeds will soon germinate.
Unfortunately many of the jack pines that died in the fire were too young to produce cones so those areas will need to be replanted. Over the next few weeks, the DNR will be assessing the damage and determining how to proceed. We should have a better idea of the DNR's plan for recovery by the time the Kirtland's Warbler Conservation Team meets in mid-July.
The Wilderness Trail Fire is a reminder of how the plants and animals on the jack pine outwash plains of northern Michigan exist on the edge. The ecosystem can provide a comfortable living for species that can adapt to the disruption of fire and accept the inherent risk. It seems the Kirtland's Warblers are aware of those risks and accept them as a cost of doing business. The area of the 2010 Meridian Boundary Fire is packed with Kirtland's Warblers right now and it's just a matter of a few years before Kirtland's Warblers return to nest in the area of the Wilderness Trail Fire.
We'll visit this area again next month to see how it's progressing and bring you another update.