By Andy Newman
Though it appears destructive, fire in the New Jersey Pinelands is a force of renewal.
On April 22, a spring wildfire roared through Penn State Forest in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, sending 100-foot flames shooting from the crowns of the pitch pines. The fire consumed half a square mile in 40 minutes and could be seen from space. By the time the New Jersey Forest Fire Service got it under control, it had burned 843 acres, an area the size of Central Park.
A week later, even as ash still swirled through air heavy with the creosote scent of burned resin and a cedar log smoldered at the edge of a swamp, the forest was being reborn. Pine cones that open only under extreme heat had released their seeds. Though the trees themselves were charred, almost all survived the fire. Where chest-high blueberry and huckleberry had burned down to pointy stubs, tufts of grass were sprouting.
Destructive fires in the West dominated the news this summer, but for eons fire has been not just an inevitable feature of the landscape, but essential to the forest’s health and continuity. In the vast wilderness of the Pine Barrens, the forest regenerates so fast that scientists studying the physics of fire use it as a laboratory.
Eleven weeks after the fire in Penn State Forest, at the height of summer’s greening, new blueberry bushes were already shin high. A grass that flowers only after fire had put forth purple-brown seeds. And scattered all through the fire site, bursts of bright-green pitch-pine needles grew straight out of scorched trunks.
By Brett French
If there’s a plant-based poster child for wildland fire in the subalpine forests of Yellowstone National Park, it would be the cone of the lodgepole pine tree.
“All of these forests evolved with fire after the last glacial retreat,” said Roy Renkin, a vegetation specialist for Yellowstone National Park. “Different species have evolved different mechanisms to deal with fire.”
The Douglas fir has thick bark meant to resist low-intensity fires. Fireweed spends a lot of time spreading its roots out so it can sprout after fires remove competition. And the lodgepole pine’s specially devised cones will open to release seeds only when heated to 104 to 122 degrees.
“This green forest over here looked like that black forest many times,” he explained.
Renkin is one of the few people still on staff at Yellowstone who was around when the 1988 fires swept across roughly one-third of the park, charring more than 793,000 acres. Since then, he’s been witness to the rebirth of the park’s vegetation following what many at the time thought would be a legacy of scorched earth and a slow rebound.
“You guys will be lucky to have a meadow there in 100 years,” let alone a forest, he remembers one group of “ologists” concluding after visiting a heavily burn site. Thirty years later some of the trees that repopulated the area are 25 feet tall. Elk sedge that took root has grown “as big as basketballs.”
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees, discusses how trees are sophisticated organisms that live in families, support their sick neighbors, and have the capacity to make decisions and fight off predators. He has been criticized for anthropomorphizing trees, but Wohlleben, 52, maintains that to succeed in preserving our forests in a rapidly warming world, we must start to look at trees in an entirely different light.