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Study Finds Forests Recover 'Quickly' After Fire -- In Tree Years Anyway

Philip Higuera
University of Idaho

Fire season has come alive in the Northwest. On Monday, 20 homes in Idaho's Sun Valley area were briefly under evacuation when a fire broke out in a nearby canyon. A 5,000-acre fire north of Wenatchee, Washington, continues to threaten houses in the area.

Fires can be devastating to people's lives. But according to new research, at least certain types of forests recovery fairly quickly.

Keep in mind “quickly” is a relative term here. But for the entire ecosystem of a forest, down to the soil composition, to return in under 100 years is pretty good. That's according to University of Idaho researchers who helped make the finding.

The study looks at high-elevation lodgepole pine forests in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park. And it starts at an unlikely source: the bottom of a lake.

“We can collect sediment cores and kind of reconstruct the timing of what's happened in the past. Somewhat similar to how you use tree rings,” study co-author Philip Higuera said.

He explained that layers of pollen from the trees, charcoal from the fire, and traces of the ensuing nitrogen and carbon cycles can tell you a lot about was happening in the forest at the time.

“Over decades what we could detect in the lake sediment record is the impact of the forest regenerating,” Higuera said.

Higuera said the study shows how fast pine forests recovered for the last 4,000 years. That can be compared to the recovery cycle today with human activity and climate change in the mix.

The paper was also co-authored by scientists from Kansas State University and the University of Colorado, Denver. It was published in May in the journal New Phytologist.