Charred tree trunks stand bare like a black winter.
Only here it’s summer.
The horrific wildfire that swept through northern sections of Riverside State Park two years ago wiped out plant and animal life on nearly 400 acres.
Yet beneath the blackened trees life is being renewed.
Today, grasses and wildflowers abound. Perennial herbs spread in clumps. Large woody shrubs sprout new shoots.
Under thousands of dead trees grow millions of ponderosa pine seedlings. One forester estimated that 250,000 baby pines are thriving per acre.
“See this old pine,” said ranger Ken Karg, pointing to a big snag and the tiny growth below it. “He seeded before he died.”
From a distance the rebirth doesn’t seem impressive, but close up, the burn area becomes a forest alive.
The broad swath the fire cut through the park has become something of a laboratory. Here, the visitor can see how flames shape the interrelationships among plants and animals through the ecology of fire.
It’s a story that repeats itself over and over, and one that will surely be seen again after last week’s wildfire north of Airway Heights.
Having watched the flames leap from tree to tree on July 11, 1994, Karg said it’s amazing nature can regenerate so quickly. The wind was so strong it threw chunks of burning debris across the Spokane River, setting off the forest on the northeast bank. An arsonist set the fire, but has never been caught.
“The ashes had hardly cooled and we had leaves coming out of the duff,” Karg said.
The wind-fanned fire was so hot it virtually sterilized the soil. Rocks are still stained on the sides from soot.
Scientists say it will take 15 to 20 years before the fire zone resembles a healthy forest again, and even at that, many of the trees will still be no taller than a basketball hoop.
But in the cycle of the forest, fire triggers a succession of events that affirms the will of nature. Ground-hugging plants like grasses and herbs sprout back first. Wildflowers put on brilliant displays, and some mushroom species emerge with vigor.
After that, shrubs start to fill in the lower levels of the forest.
Arching blackened branches were all that remained of many woody shrubs after the fire.
Now, amidst their old skeletons, shrubs such as mock orange and service berry are sending up new healthy shoots from their surviving roots.
These and other large shrubs are important in the rebirth because they provide cool shade and help preserve ground moisture for the seedling trees that are scattered quietly on the forest floor.
“It’s loaded with seedlings in here,” Karg said during a recent tour of the burn area.
But human presence has brought unwelcome intruders.
Weeds up to several feet tall have invaded the charred soil, which was left vulnerable to takeover when the existing ground cover was killed back.
The weeds compete for nutrients and water against native varieties like moss phlox, spirea and bunch grass.
Thick stands of knapweed, viper bugloss, skeleton weed and dalmation toad flax spread out acre after acre, vexing foresters who would like to see the park return to a fully natural state.
Over time, the native plants may be able to edge out the weedy intruders, Karg said. In some places, park staff is applying weed killers to encourage regrowth of native grasses, he said.
Weeds or not, the progression from charred ground to renewed forest marches on.
Shortly after the fire, many of the burned trees became targets of invading insects.
Ranger Charlie Korb said he remembers walking through the blackened stands and hearing worms working just under the bark of the dying trees.
“It sounded like somebody chewing on a rubber band,” Korb said.
The insects have attracted a big influx of woodpeckers, including common flickers and a few of the more rare pileated woodpeckers, he said.
Patches of bare bark on the otherwise black trunks show the spots where woodpeckers have been feeding.
The fire killed several members in a family of coyotes that in 1994 called the park home. One surviving pup has grown up and is now frequently seen along the northeastern part of the park not far from nearby housing developments.
Because weeds and grasses are coming back strong in the burn area, the park is playing host this summer to a pair of grazing deer.
Park rangers and volunteers are trying to help nature along.
On steep slopes where rain and snowmelt could erode soils, the park staff scattered native grass seeds.
Along trails and roads where dead trees could fall and injure someone, rangers have cut out dozens of trees. However, snags of 24 inches in circumference are left standing because they provide homes for birds and insects.
Some sections of the park are being replanted with pine and fir to help the forest come back more quickly.
Ironically, in places where trees were planted by hand, it appears their naturally seeded counterparts are doing better. Many of the hand-planted trees have died from transplant shock and summer heat.
Some 3,700 trees were planted in the park last year by groups such as the Boy Scouts, Sierra Club, Holmes Elementary students and Camp Fire members.
“They are teaching the kids about conservation,” Karg said about the reforestation efforts.
He and Korb have put on a handful of presentations to groups about the regrowth in the fire zone. For the most part, they want to leave the area to its own forces.
“We are trying to make it as natural as possible,” Karg said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo