As the number of acres burned by wildfires adds up, many people wonder what will be left when the smoke finally clears and the last embers burn out. Charred stumps and ashen landscapes appear to be devastated, incapable of recovery and unable to support wildlife populations.
Unless the fire is unusually intense, wildfires do not leave the situation as bleak as it first appears. Fire has been part of Idaho's landscape ever since there has been vegetation to burn. Our plants and animals have adapted to the changes brought by wildfire.
Fire begins a sequence of events in the plant community that affects all creatures. After the fire, nutrients in the ash, especially nitrogen and phosphorus become readily available to seeds, roots, and shoots. Seeds from fire-dependent species such as lodgepole pine are widely dispersed and rapidly take advantage of the available nutrients. Loss of the forest canopy allows plenty of sun to reach the ground allowing an explosion of plant growth. Over a very short time the forest floor becomes covered with a variety of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and seedlings.
Wildlife readily take advantage of this new growth. Because of the way in which most wildfires burn, a patchwork of burned areas, partial burns, and unburned areas is created. Such areas provide ideal forage and shelter for a variety of wildlife from birds and small mammals to big game species. In fact, burned areas often create the forage-food combinations preferred by elk. Bighorn sheep benefit from both the plant growth as well as the openness of the new habitat. Until the forest canopy closes over the area again, the succession of plants will continue to provide excellent habitat conditions.
Strangely enough, aquatic systems also gain long-term benefits from wildfire. While an intense fire can result in the temporary loss of riparian vegetation; sedimentation; loss of shading; and water temperature increases, low to moderate intensity fires release nutrients into the water. These nutrients are initially taken up by aquatic plants and eventually work their way through the food chain to benefit many aquatic animals. In more sterile alpine lakes, nutrients added as a result of fire can have significant long-term benefits to fish production. Along with the addition of nutrients, fires bring down timber into water bodies. These submerged trees provide important shelter for fish and other aquatic animals.
In this day and age, part of the ability of wildlife to survive the aftermath of large wildfires depends upon human behavior. Intense fires that remove large areas of cover often leave big game animals vulnerable to disturbance particularly in areas where fires burn roads and trails as well as along fire lines. Re-evaluation of travel management plans is sometimes necessary to protect wildlife from unnecessary human disturbance as their habitat recovers from wildfire. In addition, wildlife biologists will be active in forest rehabilitation efforts. These efforts may include re-seeding of important wildlife forage species; erosion control measures on streams; trail work; and restoring habitat in fire breaks.
While very intense fires can cause short-term damage to habitats, most fires act to benefit ecosystems and their wildlife. They can turn an aging unproductive habitat into a lush habitat capable of supporting a wide variety of wildlife.