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Helping land recover after wild fire

 
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I find myself at the moment in the Steppes of Montana, a fragile environment surrounded by “conventional” methods of agriculture. I’m a student of permaculture but joined a group of volunteers who are helping to build a natural sustainable house for some good folks living out here.
A month before the build a terrible fire (which was kindled by a negligent human) burnt through the forest and because of its proximity to the closest town of Red Lodge, MT the firefighters were forced to do a back burn, unfortunately the Steppe quickly ignited including the land we are building on. Now it is a wasteland of ash and sand, along with the burnt skeletons of junipers. I have seen countless videos of Geoff Lawton and greening the desert but I feel overwhelmed when I look at the landscape and I have no clue where to begin with helping the land recover from this tragedy. I can send pictures and maps of the area I would greatly appreciate any help and suggestions I can get.
 
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Ruth, welcome to Permies. The fire sounds devastating. I agree that permaculture is the best solution. It would definitely be helpful if you could post pictures. Have you figured out how yet? There's a tutorial on that here.
 
Ruth Sanchez
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Thank you Leigh, yes I’ll post some pics
 
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like an optimist hopefully time heals all.
I remember when mt st helens blew--a huge are decimated. it short period of time it was green once again.
might take a year for the seasons to do their thing.
 
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Ruth, welcome to the forum. That is a very sad situation.

If I were in this situation, I feel the first thing I would do is to try to find a source for wood chips and have them delivered, as much as possible.

Then I would try to find a source of leaves, which may or may not be possible this time of year though a great source in the fall.

Finding compost would be very helpful too.

I would try to recreate the lost forest floor that is now gone.

Then I might try using seed balls with native plant seeds. Or even just sprinkling native plant seed will help.

Dr Bryant Redhawk's soil series would be a good read:

https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil



 
rocket scientist
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Hi Ruth;
Big Welcome to Permies!
I live here in Montana and I've worked in the red lodge, steppes area .
As bad as it looks this summer , next spring it will be greening back up.
2 years from now only the juniper stumps will remind you of the burn.

When you live in or near the forest , fire is always a concern.
We currently have a 21,000 acre  wildfire in heavy timber only  15 miles from my house.
Prevailing winds keep the worst of the smoke to the east of us but 25 miles away in Thompson falls it is like leaning over a burn barrel.
Masks are being worn again and it is nothing to do with the virus!

As devastating as they are, fire is natures way of maintaining a healthy forest and grasslands.

 
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As Thomas Rubino suggests, nature has amazing recovery tools of her own. One of them is MORELS! Nature’s gift to those who persevere after the burn is this delectable mushroom that arrives with the spring rains. While I’ve never lived in your area, I routinely gather morels at burn sites in spring in New Mexico. This link which references research conducted in Montana, implies that you may also reap this free harvest
https://www.washington.edu/news/2016/10/11/morel-mushrooms-pop-up-cluster-together-after-wildfires/
 
thomas rubino
rocket scientist
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Yes!  Amy is correct!
I completely forgot about the Morrel's!
They are a bounty that pops up the next spring.
My buddy was commenting just the other day, how the mushroom picking in the spring was going to be outstanding!
We also have trees,  their seeds only become viable after a hot fire.
As long as your home and animals can avoid burning... fire is ok

 
Ruth Sanchez
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Yes!! And a little permaculture help maybe things will be brighter sooner than later. Thank you
 
Ruth Sanchez
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Hi Thomas, good to hear from someone in the area! Yes the smoke has been so bad these past few days. I agree fires have there place in these environments (bio char everywhere!) I’m wondering if there is something we could plant that would help nature recover faster? I’ve heard sagebrush steppes have a longer time of recovery, specifically in the area we want to do permaculture on? Greatly appreciate your insight!
 
Ruth Sanchez
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Thank you Amy, The Morels sound Amazing! I’ll do my research on them thank you!
 
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Fire is not actually an ecological catastrophe, it is a part of nature and is good for the ecosystem in moderation. You really don't need to do anything to help the landscape recover from it, that will happen on its own. In a year or two it will be teeming with new life, new shrubs and weeds will sprout, many deer will come around to browse the new plants growing. I sometimes drive to burned forests that are recovered and find that a mere 4 years later, they're full of life, weeds, shrubs, an incredible diversity of life growing there.
 
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When a bush fire hit my place years ago, I immediately installed a pump and sprinkler system with sprays going out 50 ft to my dam and gave a large  area a single good soak.

Within a week or so small shoots appeared and 3 years later the difference between the soaked and unsoaked area was amazing.
 
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You beat me to it.  Fire is a natural thing.  I wish i could burn my property to clean up some of the downed material and set back some brush that's stifling the diversity.  A shot of rain to wash in the ash and a growing season, and that property will be beautiful.  If you wanna give it a boost, get some flower seed and some clovers native to the area and spread them in the burn areas.  If there is little cover, sweet clover makes a great bee habitat and wildlife cover.  In MT though, sweet clover may be considered invasive, so do your homework.  
 
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I think this would be a good time to figure out a design for future fires. Designing in fire breaks followed by fire resistant plantings could help. I have not done any fire resistant designs, so I wont be much help with practical stuff.

If you have time, I would consider walking through recently burnt areas (1-3 years). This will give you an idea how quickly the area will recover. Maybe you could focus on establishing desirable plants or putting in water features if the natural recovery is adequate.
 
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I agree with the observation that fire in this context is just a vehicle for renewal.

Now would be a great time to read up on local pioneer species of tree and shrub, so that they can be recognised when they sprout. It would also be useful to be aware of the species that specifically require fire to germinate. Such species are often fire-adapted, with thicker barks and self-pruning lower limbs.

Being aware of the nature of the ecology, those parts of it that burn regularly and self-replenish from the soil-borne seed bank along with those parts that are designed to weather all but the most severe burns, is critical to intervening in a way that makes sense for the natural cycles of the region. Don't fight natural cycles; go with.

What I figure is that you have just acquired a great heaping lot of charred wood. Some will only be torrified, but average forest fires burn at an average of 800 C. That exceeds the temperatures required for char suitable for inoculation and use as biochar.

So I would look to your hydrology. I would ensure that, if subsoiling on-contour stands to increase rainfall infiltration on your site, that it be done. It will carry some of the char deeper.

Producing a healthy compost, and then brewing actively aerated compost extracts and inoculating the burn area with it should serve to inoculate the char, increasing levels of beneficial soil bacteria and providing food for ambient fungi, like the aforementioned morels, accelerating the natural renewal process.

When everything starts coming back, my priority would be to assess the regrowth pattern, relocating saplings when necessary to manage shading and provide for landscape measures to contain and manage future burns. It is possible to arrange and manage it such that when subsequent fires move through, undergrowth is all that burns, so the fire-resistant tree species and their supportive infrastructure remain.

-CK
 
Ruth Sanchez
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Thank you Chris, I found your post immensely helpful Yes there is bio char all over the land, it isn’t as much as you would find after a wildfire in a forest since we are in the high altitude desert or sage brush Steppe and from what I’ve read and see in the surrounding areas, this type of habitat has a harder time recovering from fires and the drought doesn’t help either.
I agree with you about checking the hydrology currently we are mapping out some swells in the land specially  since there is nothing to hold the topsoil in place at the moment and the little bit of water that does run through creates a lot of erosion.
I hadn’t heard of “brewing actively aerated compost extracts and inoculating the burn area” I will research this further.
One of the biggest challenges is trying to help improve the land in a shorter amount of time than what it usually takes in these areas (20+years)
I’m looking into the species that would be most drought and fire resistant in the area,  it’s a daunting task, since some that I have found are considered invasive species.
It’s definitely challenging but I continue learning.
 
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You don't have biochar yet; just the char part. It hasn't absorbed nutrients and been colonized by whatever soil microorganisms yet. But in time it probably will.

What comes to mind is working to prevent flooding when rains come. Frequently the next rain after a fire carries away a lot of soil in a flash flood. Laying down dead trees on contour would be good for that except that you still want the standing dead trees shelter new growth. Maybe you can cut some to slow runoff and leave some to shelter new growth.
 
Ruth Sanchez
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I’ve attached a picture of the land after the wildfire, no trees, sagebrush, no native grasses only sand. So far we have made some swales and berms on contour that will help catch some water. Come spring we will be planting native grasses, forbs and trees.
6EE1A049-1CD9-4DAB-84BE-8D96F17FB22B.jpeg
[Thumbnail for 6EE1A049-1CD9-4DAB-84BE-8D96F17FB22B.jpeg]
 
Anne Miller
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Ruth, that is sad to see.

It will take time for the land to recover.

Have you been able to put out seeds so that when spring gets here the seeds will germinate and help with erosion?
 
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Have you considered starting a small nursery and planting pioneer trees while nursery grows? Maybe in the area you already started doing water catchment.
My property had the same thing happen, back burned. Seeing what yours looks like makes me appreciate all the branches and rocks I do have. I have a similar property to this up north, with junipers and sage, but more clay. I think a fire would have that property looking like yours though
 
pollinator
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this website might be of interest/use to you as you are looking at replanting: https://www.feis-crs.org/feis/

It is a website by the US fire service, their 'Fire Effects Information System,' and if you enter in some plants you know grow in your area, you can get a ton of information about what species tend to grow with it, near it, what comes back first after a fire, all sorts of things. Most of it under their 'species review data' tab, that will pop up once you search for a plant, if they have a tab for the particular species (they have the data for a lot of them, but not all - I think they can find info by common or latin name, but can't recall right now).

I have used it to help me figure out some tree guilds for certain native species, as well as figure out what to plant some of my native plant areas with, on my property.  
 
Ruth Sanchez
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Anne Miller wrote:Ruth, that is sad to see.

It will take time for the land to recover.

Have you been able to put out seeds so that when spring gets here the seeds will germinate and help with erosion?



Hi Anne, we did and the biggest problem now is the wind, when it picks up it blows sand everywhere. We found a small section protected somewhat from the wind and planted some seeds my thinking was to start small and then stretch out if we have any luck growing the native grasses.

Thank you for following and I appreciate all the advise.
 
Ruth Sanchez
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jer ander wrote:Have you considered starting a small nursery and planting pioneer trees while nursery grows? Maybe in the area you already started doing water catchment.
My property had the same thing happen, back burned. Seeing what yours looks like makes me appreciate all the branches and rocks I do have. I have a similar property to this up north, with junipers and sage, but more clay. I think a fire would have that property looking like yours though



Hi Jer, yes we have started some native grasses and trees in the nursery and then will be planting once they're vegetative, the main concern are the winds right now in October they flattened a house and after the fire they're is nothing to hold down the sand, we hope to have something established before they pick up again.

Thank you for following and I appreciate any advice.
 
Anne Miller
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Ruth, it is good to hear how things are going.

I live where it is windy so I can understand.

Maybe adding some windbreaks would be a good thing.

Here are some threads that might be interesting:

https://permies.com/t/58188/effortless-windbreak

https://permies.com/t/108856/windbreak-design

https://permies.com/t/166283/Sowing-windbreak-forest-Fall-direct
 
John C Daley
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Instead of planting seeds, throw seed balls around.
Video for a garden situation

Video for paddocks and broad areas


Why seed balls or bombs
https://www.permaculturenews.org/2019/07/19/seedballs-part-1/
 
pollinator
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We have a piece of property along the Klamath River, smack in the middle of the McKinney fire. (It’s not our primary home, thank goodness, though my heart is choked for all of our neighbors.) We still aren’t able to get in and see it, given that the fire is still blazing away, but I’m making plans nevertheless.

Star thistle reduction
We have a real issue with star thistle in the open areas of our land. FEIS notes that fires are seldom severe enough to reduce the seed bank of star thistle (linky), but it will give us a chance to establish some other seeds to out-compete them.

Poison oak strategy
Alas, FEIS notes that poison oak regenerates pretty readily after a fire. Looks like we’re going to have to rent some goats after all.

@&#&&*$ Ticks
The fire should knock the tick population back a bit, but the jury’s still out on the length of that effect. Probably should plan for some Met25 application in the spring. Met25 is a fungus that attacks ticks and mites (including the bee-killing varroa mites) that leaves other species alone.

Now the plants we want to keep!
Artemisia
Not entirely certain which species of artemisia we have growing there, but it’s a lovely plant that I definitely want to keep around. Once I can pinpoint the species more specifically, I can then look at its medicinal uses. It should regenerate fine. (All this talk about regeneration, I’m starting to feel like Doctor Who.)

Wild grapes
Last year, I was able to confirm that yes, these are wild grapes and not moonseed. Yay! This one is going to take quite some time to re-establish, but it should come back from root crowns.

Black walnut
This is the one I’m most worried about, simply because it will take so long to re-establish if the trees burned. https://www.fs.usda.gov/database/feis/plants/tree/jugcal/all.html" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">(The roots should survive and sprout) We have several black walnut trees that have provided us liberally with nuts. I will be sad if they are injured or destroyed, but I’m kind of preparing myself for that.

I am formulating lists of plants to include in seed balls that we’ll scatter around in the fall (and more in the spring). Does anyone know if acorns are a good candidate for seed balls? Oaks are the primary tree in this are and I’d like to encourage more of them.
 
Anne Miller
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Shawn do you have plans to help the land recover?

I highly recommend Dr. Bryant Redhawk's Soil Series:

https://permies.com/wiki/redhawk-soil

You and others might find these especially helpful:

https://permies.com/t/76498/biology-soil

https://permies.com/t/123928/Growing-Plants-builds-soil-health

https://permies.com/t/93911/soil-mother-nature

For those seed balls:

https://permies.com/t/115566/Seed-raising-mix-buying-products#941543

Best wishes for healing your land.
 
John C Daley
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Growing oaks from seed
https://treegrowing.tcv.org.uk/grow/tree-recipes/pedunculateoak
 
Shawn Foster
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Thanks for those resources, Anne and John! It’s going to be a while yet before we can even get in and assess the damage, so I’m squirreling away ideas and resources. It helps me feel better about a situation that I can otherwise do absolutely nothing about. Planning to set aside a goodly number of seed balls to do some guerrilla seeding in the area. If I can get enough, it would be need to have a “free seed” station where people can pick some up for themselves, too.
 
John C Daley
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Shawn, maybe you could suggest a community project to get seed ball creation happening big time.
I take it the fires are current, but when do you get in?
Also, in Australia, often after a big bush fire we suddenly have a rainstorm that creates havoc with loose soil and debris.
 
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