OUT OF THE ASHES, NEW LIFE

Deep Creek hiking trail scorched in Pine Creek fire is regenerating
Thursday, July 19, 2018
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Photo by Dwight Harriman

            Hikers make their way through trees burned in the 2012 fire and the new underbrush coming to life on the Deep Creek South Fork hiking trail, June 24.

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Photo by Dwight Harriman

Wildflowers bloom along the Deep Creek trail as water is seen rushing by in the background.

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Photo by Dwight Harriman

Fungus grows on an old log along the trail.

When the Pine Creek fire erupted on a hot August day in 2012, the Pine Creek area – in the Paradise Valley south of Livingston – was not the only one hit. The adjacent south fork of Deep Creek also went up in flames, and with it, a beautiful hiking trail.

A walk up that trail shortly after the fire was like moving through a moonscape – a completely denuded land, gray ash on the trail, and blackened tree trunks stabbing bony fingers into the sky.

Six years later, the area has been transformed, not only in spite of the fire but also because of it.

A hike a couple of weeks ago revealed a lush, green understory throughout the burned area – some of it 3 to 4 feet high – of shrubs and forbs of various types, wildflowers, lodgepole pine and aspen. The ground was damp and cool. Mountain streams gurgled. The blackened trees pointing skyward are still there, but their harsh profiles are now softened by the undergrowth of greenery.

It’s hard to get the word “regeneration” out of one’s mind when walking through the area.

Ashley Sites, fire management officer for the Yellowstone and Gardiner Ranger Districts, said lodgepole pine actually needs fire to regenerate.

“It’s really the heat,” Sites said, explaining that the high temperature of a forest fire melts the pitch that keeps the pine cones locked shut, allowing them to sprout.

Direct sunlight also can do that, but not nearly as efficiently, he said.

“Aspens tend to like fire” as well, Sites said – or for that matter any disturbance that causes them to grow from the root stalk instead of seed, producing more vigorous growth.

After a fire, the first plants will usually be a native plant called fireweed, Sites said.

What kind of wildlife is seen first after a fire?

“Typically the big game … elk and deer like to forage” on the grassy types of plants and aspen, Sites said, with the new growth being more palatable than older plants.

Woodpeckers also are attracted to the burned trees because they are cavity nesters.

For the short term, more water is available for the undergrowth because the trees are not taking it up, Sites said. Then things begin to transition over time as shade increases, hindering some plants and helping others.

And with that regeneration process, the cycle starts all over again.

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To reach the Deep Creek trailhead, head south from Livingston on East River Road and turn left at Deep Creek South Fork Road about 1.5 miles before Pine Creek.

Drive straight up the dirt road to the trailhead. From there, it’s a short, steep climb in a grassy, open space until you reach the forest area to begin winding through the trees.

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