Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
The forests staggered, rocked, exploded, and then shriveled under the holocaust. Great red balls of fire rolled up the mountainsides. Crown fires, from one to 10 miles wide, streaked with yellow and purple and scarlet, raced through treetops 150 feet from the ground. Bloated bubbles of gas burst murderously into forked and greedy flames, reported writer Betty Goodwin Spencer of "the Big Blowup," a traumatic series of August 1910 wildfires that claimed 85 human lives and scorched 3 million acres of prime forestland in the Northern Rockies of Idaho and Montana.
Smoke from the Big Blowup darkened cities as far as 800 miles away at midday and sent regional temperatures plummeting to freezing levels for a week or so following the fire. The landscape was overrun with destruction. Embers burned into the winter months - in some cases even beyond initial snowfalls. The next spring, however, people living in the burn areas reported some of the best wildflower blooms they had ever seen. By summer, thousands of square acres were carpeted in rose-pink petals thanks to the widespread flowering of the aptly named plant fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium).
Many wildflower species - like fireweed - have evolved in response to fire and rely on its effects on the landscape in order to reproduce. Fire has always been part of nature's regimen and can be good for wildflower populations, as it reduces competition from other vegetation, opens up tree canopies to admit more sunlight, and recycles nutrient-rich organic material by returning it to the soil. Under normal circumstances, fire is more helpful than harmful to native ecosystems in general and to several wildflowers in particular.
Fireweed and Today's Fires
Named for its propensity to "grow like a weed" in burned areas, fireweed blooms from rhizomes (underground root-like stems) during the summer months into beautiful clumps of rose-pink spires on top of tall, erect, leafy stems with narrow willow-like leaves. Its blossoms are a familiar sight in recently burned lowland and sub-alpine areas.
Fireweed blooms like those of that 1911 summer were not to be repeated again until recent years, when fire returned to U.S. forests with a vengeance, likely as a result of the very tactics used to suppress rampant burns.
Historians credit the Big Blowup with forcing the newly emerged U.S. Forest Service to take on fire suppression as a top priority at any cost. While this policy did prevent many fires during its 80-year reign as priority number one, it also caused the build-up of decades-worth of tinder-like woody debris that eventually fueled the largest wildfires on record in the country over the past few summers. When fire finally returned to the Appalachians, Cascades, Sierra Nevada, Rockies, and elsewhere, it burned out of control with a vengeance.
According to University of Washington fire ecologist Jim Agee, the goal of eliminating wildfire worked all too well. "We have essentially built a huge biomass bank over the last century," he says, citing the build-up of tinder - in the form of tree limbs, needles, and brush - throughout Northwest forests over many decades. So it was no surprise to foresters and ecologists when lightning storms ignited vast sections of Wenatchee National Forest and North Cascades National Park into flame in August 2001. The resulting wildfires devastated 54,000 acres of prime forestland and timberland and cost taxpayers more than $4.3 million for recovery and clean-up.
Eventually, though, early-season snowfall cooled the burn zone and provided plenty of irrigation for future regrowth. Within eight months, locals once again were reporting unprecedented wildflower displays throughout the region. Indeed, by the next summer, entire hillsides were painted rose-pink - with fireweed, of course.Fireweed can be so successful following a fire because its root-like rhizomes take hold deep in the soil, below the duff layer, which heats to lethal temperatures. Often, shallow root structures are destroyed, favoring those species - like fireweed - with deeper roots. The 5-foot-high rose-pink blossoms of the fireweed plant can be visible against the ashy blank canvas of a burn area from several hundred yards away.