The charred hills surrounding Okanagan Lake in inland British Columbia will likely look very different a year from now and beyond, as life returns to the wildfire-ravaged landscape, environmentalists predict.
An eruption of low plants, grasses, and shrubs will turn the hills green. Birds and small mammals, as well as deer and bears, will return to feast on berries and other plants. Carnivores, including pumas, could get in there.
But the tall trees destroyed by the fires may never recover or return, said Robert Gray, a wildfire ecologist.
“When you look at West Kelowna, it’s very rocky and steep terrain and the trees aren’t going to grow very well there. There’s not a lot of moisture in the ground and it’s only going to get drier with climate change.” Gray said. “A lot of that landscape may not see many trees coming back.”
Gray said that by this coming June, people should expect to see “an explosion of shrubs, grasses and herbs” springing up from the ruined forest.
“What will happen in that landscape is there will be a lot of bushes. The grasses will come back and that will be good for a while,” Gray said.
“Nature is amazing. It’s resiliency…there are so many plants that are adapted to fire. They need fire on a regular basis, so they will reoccupy those areas.”
For example, shrub species in the wildfire zone already had seeds buried deep in the ground and were waiting for heat or fire to germinate them, Gray said.
Tree recovery is a different matter.
“Unless these areas are intentionally planted, they are not likely to have a lot of trees in the future,” Gray said.
Okanagan residents are no strangers to catastrophic wildfires.
In 2003, the Okanagan Mountain Park fire forced the evacuation of thousands of people and destroyed hundreds of properties. It also transformed the landscape.
Tara Bergeson, urban forestry supervisor for the city of Kelowna, said the 2003 fire that burned the park and the city was “very severe and has had a lasting impact on the land base.”
“Little regrowth has occurred in much of the area, and we may not see the trees return in time or at all. Currently, much of the area remains shrub and grassland,” Bergeson wrote in an email. .
Recently burned trees, weakened but clinging to life, can attract bark beetles and other insects, Gray said.
“These little beetles burrow into the tree and lay their eggs, and when the young larvae grow, they basically kill the tree,” Gray said.
In about five to eight years, the dead trees will start to break.
Gray said that situations like these will pose significant fire risks, especially with ongoing climate change making things drier and hotter. He said prescribed burns would be important in those areas to limit future wildfires.
Some bird species thrive after wildfires
Ken Lertzman, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University’s school of environmental and resource management, said some small animals can thrive after fires, such as bluebirds, hawks, owls and woodpeckers.
“They can really take advantage of that particular combination of resources that are available in those very young, open forests,” Lertzman said.
Gray agreed, saying that recently burned open forest land with abundant grass and shrubs could be a food haven for animals.
“Now it’s open and there are grasses, weeds, shrubs, berries and nuts; there’s plenty to eat,” Gray said. A diverse community of berry bushes would attract visitors, including deer, elk and bear, and insects and birds. “Be drawn to flowers,” Gray added.
Lertzman said the duration of forest regeneration depends on many factors, from soil conditions to temperatures.
Generally speaking, young forests took 40 to 60 years to establish and at least 100 years to return to mature forests, Lertzman said, adding that forests recovering from fires represent a natural cycle.
“In inland British Columbia and in many forests around the world, wildfires are part of the evolutionary history of the forest,” Lertzman said.
However, Gray said it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if many trees didn’t come back.
“If we reclaim a similar forest, it will just burn again,” he said.
“In that landscape, you definitely want fewer trees because the more trees, the more drought there is and then it weakens them and insects kill them,” Gray said, “and then a fire breaks out, so we want fewer trees there.”