Post-Fire Land Management

**This is copied from a Facebook post by Frankie/Chiquita Bonita. I am posting here to make it easier (hopefully!) for people to share, because the information is essential and very useful to anyone dealing with a fire-affected region.

This comes after one of the worst fires Central Portugal has known in at least a decade if not more, which affected more than 300,000 hectares and countless individuals, families, homes, and animals.

Note that the advice is in some cases specific to Portugal, but can be applied anywhere with slight adjustments in terms of what the native species are. The image is from Pixabay and is merely intended to reflect what the content relates to, without necessarily being accurate location-wise.**

THE GOOD NEWS

1. The likelihood of a fire of this magnitude re-ocurring within the next 15 years is extremely low. This is because fires of this kind reduce the biomass considerably so in a fire-treated landscape such as ours, huge fires don’t usually re-occur within this timeline.
2. Despite how things look right now, this is NOT an ecological disaster. Many of the plants have the capacity to regenerate and they WILL survive. This area will not become a desert. When Spring comes the plants will return FAST.
3. We now have a window of opportunity to bring MASSIVE CHANGE if we work effectively together. Only events of this size and magnitude can force politicians, or local communities, to do something different. This opportunity has not been utilised effectively enough in the past. But now we have a chance to bring in new ways of managing our forests. Let’s seize the day.

WHAT’S NEXT?

LAND MANAGEMENT IN THE SHORT TERM

Q. What do we do with the burnt trees? How do we encourage re-forestation?

We have huge hillsides and slopes of desertion; changes in the chemical constitution of the land; and hydrophobic soil where the water just runs off the surface. Now when the rains come floods, landslides and soil erosion is a serious concern. Most of these problems will be felt downstream. So how do we proceed with reforestation and replanting?

DON’T PLANT NEW TREES

Firsty, it is important to note that bringing in new plants from a nursery and re-planting small trees is NOT the most effective way to proceed. Do not expend resources in this way. What has been proved in countless studies to be most effective is ASSISTED REGENERATION (explained in full below).

Q. We have whole forests of pine which have burnt down. What is the best method of regeneration?

Reforesting pine depends very much upon the age of the plantation which burnt down. Young plantations may die unless the ground is undamaged because pines don’t re-sprout, they grow from seeds. If the pine trees are too young to have any cones there will be no regeneration. In this case, if the plantation is very young (and you want to encourage the pine back in) you may wish to re-plant.

If the forest is 7-10 years+ however, the risk we run is actually more of EXCESSIVE REGENERATION. This is the problem of young pines coming up very fast, as some pine cones actually only open AFTER fire as a survival response. So what we are likely to witness is actually a massive regeneration of pines so there is absolutely no need to re-plant them. We need to watch out for this.

Since the pines provide cover under which other species (like oaks) grow, in a mixed forest, there may be no immediate need to plant deciduous trees into pine plantations. These species may already be there. If they are, progressive change will be seen next Spring. Even by the end of winter, you can start to look for the native species coming up.

But we can also help this process by thinning out the pines as they grow and planting seeds like acorns to encourage the re-growth of native plants.

MANAGING DEFORESTED SLOPES

Managing the steep deforested slopes is now of primary concern. This is especially important if you have a high value asset (such as a home) to protect at the bottom of the slope, as soil erosion and landslides are a likely threat. It may be possible to predict which areas are most vulnerable by looking at the rate of incline, the type of soil and the density of fire in the area. We can utilise satellite images and topography to identify specific locations but we can also just use our eyes and common sense. It is worth looking around you to see if any areas near by that may be of primary concern and organising neighbours to tackle it together.

As for removing trees, we may want to cut burnt or unstable trees for SAFETY REASONS near roads for example, but some of the less damaged trees are valuable as they can provide perches for the birds. Encouraging the birds into these areas is a massive benefit because they will drop seeds. Some seeds will only germinate effectively when they have passed through the digestive system of birds. So, unless, there are criticial safety reasons for doing so, cutting ALL the dead trees down is not something we need to do. If the trees are slightly scorched then leave them be.

LOG DAMS

Some of the trees that are definitely dead (or have fallen) can be cut down but DO NOT REMOVE them from the slope. These big trunks can be used to make log-dams to prevent soil erosion, which is a massive risk when the rains come, and to incorporate the rotten and dead wood back into the soil again. Studies show that the soil erosion is far more damaging that the fire itself so the survival of the forest very much depends upon our ability to protect it.

Several measures can be taken. Smash the branches off and leave them on the floor to create a kind of mulch which will hinder water run-off. Or, if you have the resources, you can chip the branches and spread the woodchip in this way. The logs can be laid on the ground and held in place by small wooden stakes, so they do not travel anywhere. Stake them along contour lines on steep slopes. In this way we can create small scale log dams all the way down the mountainside.

Evidence shows that the majority of soil erosion happens in the very first heavy rainfall, so getting this work done BEFORE THE RAINS come is of primary concern. Once the plants start to come back the soil has it’s cover back already so no more measures are needed to protect it.

A little more about this method…

Inevitably, foresters often disapprove of this method. Even in the Mata which is managed in as natural a way as possible, the forester engineers don’t like the presence of dead wood. But from an ecology point of view, it is normal to have dead wood in forests. Does this prevent a fire hazard in time – fuel for the fires? It is of course a matter of balance, but there is no scientific study showing that leaving food to rot down significantly increases the risk of fire. It is from an ecology point of view, it is not significant enough to be a problem as long as a balance is kept. The wood will degrade over time, and create humidity, and this creates a very good growing environment for oaks and chestnuts etc. Foresters often don’t like leaving dead wood around as they can sell the trees, and they say it encourages insects and pests, but from an ecology point of view this is a very effective way to stabilise the land and prevent soil loss. As the trees decompose, they also feed the soil. Where the fires were very intense you may also want to provide some kind of soil cover from the heavy rains, so spreading STRAW or a similar material over the area will also help prevent soil erosion down the steep slopes.

Q. How will the oaks, cork oaks and chestnutes fare?

The deciduous trees like the cork oaks will most likely survive unless the cork had already been extracted. The chestnuts are more susceptible to fire as they have a thinner bark. The winds were strong and scorched the ground but how much damage has been done to the trees is difficult to tell at this stage. We will have to wait until Spring to see. You can make small water lines to the trees so aid them in recovery (scarification). If they survive they will re-sprout from the base. Later on, you can cut the main trunk, and they may re-sprout. But equally, they may take up to two years to die. Overall, however, there is no need to manage any of the cork oaks or other deciduous trees unless there are safety reaons for doing so. Leave them alone and we will see what happens. If they begin to grow again make sure you clear space so they have enough light below the canopy. In the meantime search for unburnt seeds and distribute with pushing them into the ground with your finger when the rainfall is moderate. The seeds with the best chance, however, are brought by jays so make sure there are perches for them to visit.

Lets remember that we have the benefit of the timing of the fire being in October, as this is when most of the trees are already shutting down their activity for the winter. So many of them will have been half closed already and this may make the difference in terms of their survival.

Q. Olive Trees

We can be a little more pessimistic about the olive trees’ chances of survival if they have been badly hit. If they are very, very old they may regenerate from re-sprouting, even if the trunks are dead. Leave them be and in 1-2 years time you can cut the trunks. When they re-sprout, select the best sprout and cut all the others. The survival rate and the speed of growth, is 3 x faster than it would be if bringing in new young olive trees from a nursery, so be patient with the process and see what happens.

Q. Isn’t it better to conserve the tree’s energy by cutting the dead parts away so it has the energy to re-sprout?

It is hard to say. You can invest in the new re-sprout in this way, but you also run the risk of cutting down a tree that may still be alive.

Q. Medronho

This is another good sprouter, likely to survive, and will re-sprout whether you cut them or not.

Q. How will the Heather regenerate?

Heather, like most shrubs, is a re-sprouter, sprouting from the base and the roots. It is a hardy plant so there’s no need for concern. It will be back on our slopes between December – March. Re-sprouters will regenerate much faster than they would from seed.

Q. Will the the mimosa be gone?

No. The mimosa, a very invasive plant, sprouts and regenerates from it’s seeds in a quantity which is unimaginable after the fire. It is the work of many many years to remove the sea of mimosa from this area. Even after everything has been removed, the seeds can survive in the soil for up to 100 years.

Q. So how do we work with the mimosa?

The mimosa is a major challenge. We need to remove invasive plants as much as we can. Some suggestions are: as they come up you can wait for the shoots to become big enough to extract from the ground by the roots. Remove all the leaves , cut rings in to the bark, and cover with black plastic to keep the light out. The seeds will always be waiting in the soil to come back to life. But we can cut and burn the mimosa and leave a barricaded / covered fenced -in patch to provide a kind of shadow on the soil which hopefully will decrease the amount of germination. Foraging goats may be useful to try. Hugo suggests that when the moon is in its ascendency the humidity is less, and this is the best time to cut it and cover it in shadow. Or the most effective way to reduce biomass is to burn it during the winter. This is very effective and low risk. Repeated efforts have reduced his mimosa by 40-60%.

Q. What about the eucalyptus? The eucalyptus remains fairly untouched. How do we stop its growth?

Young eucalyptus plants don’t burn and there is bare soil between the lines whch hinders the spread of the fire. A controversial suggestion is that perhaps we have an opportunity to work with the paper companies and negotiate to use these young plantaions to decrease the risk of fires. (?!)

Eucalyptus will re-sprout prolifically all along the trunk. There is no solution. The only way to get rid of them is to uproot them from the ground with machinery or by hand if they are very young. They can be taken out by hand as they appear. They have 3 rotations before they die. The only good thing about them is that they are less invasive than mimosa as they don’t spread at quite the same exponential rate. They are still a very real threat to the landscape scale.

Q. Is the ash a problem for the land or the water safety?

Ash is a biological fertiliser. It doesn’t present a direct threat of contamination. Use your visual diagnosis to identify safe drinking water.

Q. What about the animals?

Don’t worry about the animals. There is no evidence which suggest there will be a significant decrease in their populations. Some species even gain from wildfires…they will survive, don’t worry.

Q. Landscape scale regeneration?

Increasing the humidity in the area is key. We know for sure that in the absence of management, natural forests are much more resistant to fire so introducing broadleaf deciduous areas as fire breaks is very helpful. We must invest in nature. The Mata last burnt in 1987, exactly 30 years ago. This is the exact time range needed without fire to change the microclimate of an area. Most of these “fuel breaks” will not stop the fire but they may be successful in keeping it from our houses. The larger they are the better, as fires, driven by huge winds, can still breach these areas.

For every year that we suppress a fire, more biomass accumulates, and there is always one year when the system breaks collapses. Every 10-20 years it is necessary for nature to have a big peak of fires and this will continue as long as the landscape remains unmanaged. In order to save houses we must plan fuel breaks in order to aid our fire fighting ability. The problem is that the way we invest in our landscape is a huge mistake. ¾ of our resources go towards fire fighting and only ¼ goes towards the management of the land. The success of fire policy can no longer measured by how many hectares have burnt that year, but on LONG TERM MANAGEMENT OF THE NATIVE SPECIES. What we must realise is that fire is part of the system. The natural fire regime is to burn every 30 years – and we must expect this. What is not normal is to have a fire every 5/6 years.

HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF THE FIRES

The reality is that as local villages have lost more and more people, the forests have grown bigger than ever. 30 – 50 years ago there was MUCH LESS forest than there is today. It was in patches, and not so continuous. Today it encroaches into the villages , with less fields around to protect them. There was less forest back then, but they were better managed. In 1920-1950’s this area was filled with people. It was in the 1960’s , after the big emigration of the people, that these fires really started. So we need to realise that we in a difficult context and this is why it is so difficult to manage. There are much fewer people to manage the evergrowing forest.

Estrangeiro communities

The best advice the ecologists had for us is to “IMPOSE OURSELVES AS RESIDENTS” (their words, verbatim). We are, they said, becoming more accepted and it is our responsibility to approach juntas and principalities for help with managing the land. We could also approach the eucalyptus companies directly and ask for their help in providing better protection and fuel breaks near houses. This is a controversial idea but what do we really have to lose (?) Perhaps we can strike a deal for joint forest management. As residents we cannot manage the landscape scale by ourselves. It is their responsibility to provide better management. Another idea is land sharing – communal land for communal profit, pulling our resources. We have a window of opportunity now to act and we must take it.

Hope this is helpful to you all.

Frankie x