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How government agencies restore forests and plains after a wildfire

4th March 2020 Print

Damage from wildfires doesn’t end when the flames go out. Loss of vegetation caused by wildfires can result in profound subsequent problems for a forest, including soil erosion and flooding, and it can even put flora and fauna species at risk. The loss of plant growth after a fire can also result in damage reservoirs and water supplies, as well as other structures.

Mitigation & Reparation

To minimize these effects, government agencies adopt a range of mitigation and reparation practices aimed at restoring tree growth and ecosystems as quickly as possible. The most important of these is the Burned Area Emergency Response program (BAER), a collaboration between the Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and other federal, state, and local agencies. Most states also have Forest Practices Acts that set out laws and guidelines for reforestation projects. 

At the heart of BAER and similar programs is a mission to effectively restore plant growth to the burned area in order to rebuild habitats and prevent soil erosion. When actively restoring plant growth, rehabilitators select the most appropriate species, stock them at the most appropriate levels, and place them precisely where they need to grow and when they need to be planted. 

To help you understand how government agencies work to reforest after a wildfire, here’s the process most agencies follow to restore burned forests.

Developing a Rehabilitation Plan

After evaluating the soil, climate, and details of the topography such as elevation and slight, rehabilitators will consider a range of management objectives in choosing what seeds and seedlings to plant. These objectives consider variables such as land use, wildlife habitat, aesthetics, and the long-term growth plan for the land. 

At this stage, rehabilitators also partner with other local, state, and federal agencies in order to arrange the management of any other risks or problems that have been identified at the site. Because of the complexity of reforesting, developing a team approach across these agencies is essential to reclamation and reforestation work.

Determining the Number of Seeds Needed

Depending on the severity of the fire, the nature of the land, and the objectives set in the rehabilitation plan, workers will estimate the ideal growth capacity for the site. It’s often preferable to plant at a lower density than the immediate pre-burn forest in order to allow for natural regrowth patterns and to minimize the chances of another fire in the near future. 

At the same time, when planting from seed, rehabilitators will often aim for a slightly higher sowing rate in order to account for the inevitable loss of some seeds due to non-germination, animal damage, and other factors.

Obtaining Forest Seeds

Perhaps the most crucial step in the process is finding the nursery or seed company that supplies the stock that’s required, in the quantity that’s needed, and by the time the seeds must be planted. 

There are some companies that specialize in reforestation seedlings, such as Granite Seed, which, for over thirty years has been North America’s largest provider of reclamation and conservation seed, as well as erosion control products to restore vegetation after wildfires and severe storms.

Preparing the Burn Site

Before the seedlings go in the ground, the site must be prepared to minimize fire risks and remediate pest and disease threats. Most wildfires burn off much of the competing vegetation and can even add nutrients to the soil which is helpful in preparing the site, despite the destruction it causes to necessary foilage. Typically, rehabilitators will undertake any necessary site preparation work in the fall, allowing the ground to recover over the winter before planting.

Planting & Restoration

In most cases, rehabilitators will begin the process of restoring vegetation in the spring. Depending on the nature of the site and the plants being used, this might happen when the soil reaches a steady temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit at six inches deep, or even as early as the last snowmelt. It’s important that the timing of ordering and delivering the seeds be arranged so that they go into the ground as soon as possible.

Maintaining the Site

Over the ensuing months, rehabilitators must continue to monitor and care for the damaged site. Weeds, invasive species, and other unwanted plant growth must be removed without causing further damage to the planted growth. 

In some cases, grafting will be necessary in order to improve the hardiness and diversity of the growing stock. Follow-up plantings of seedlings will likely be required in the months and years after, and rehabilitators will often stagger the dates of these plantings in order to allow for varying levels of growth at the site.

It Takes Time to Recover

Wildfires can be caused by natural events or by human activity, but no matter the cause, they often require planning and labor in order to reach full recovery. Rehabilitators and wildland reclamation and reforestation professionals have developed these strategies to help make that happen.