By Rebecca Bowyer
When a visitor journeys up Skyline Drive and looks out over the portion of Shenandoah National Park recently ravaged by wildfire, black scars, charred trees and the smell of soot linger—but, almost unexpectedly, a majority of the area is green.
The Rocky Mountain wildfire was first reported to park officials on April 16. Windy and dry conditions contributed to its massive size; it burned 10,326 acres before being contained. With the flames officially out, the focus turns to rehabilitation and the threat of invasive species.
Stephen Paull is a biological science technician at the park who served as one of several resource advisers during the fire to make sure the suppression efforts didn’t do more harm than good. Rehabilitation began while firefighting crews were still at the park.
“When [the fire] cooled down, we were able to start rehabbing fire lines,” the man-made gaps in the vegetation dug during efforts to stop the flames, says Paull. “That involved pulling soil back into those areas and pulling vegetation back across the lines to try and conceal them so that they didn’t look like trails. We were able to take advantage of the labor on hand.”
While dozens of trails were closed to visitors during the fire, all have since reopened with no restrictions. This does not mean the work is finished. In fact, Paull anticipates the rebuilding process will take three or four years.
“We had about 23 miles of trails that were in that burned area, so we have crews that are currently evaluating them to determine what kind of work is required,” he says. “We know there are some areas where so much of the soil was burned off that we are worried about erosion. Those crews will be going in and making repairs now.”
Paull expects repairs to be completed by the end of 2016. “Going forward, we have applied for funding to do some additional work in future years,” he says, and the park is seeking $58,000 in federal funds.
Shenandoah National Park spokesperson Claire Comer estimates suppression efforts cost just over $4 million to bring firefighters and air support to the park.
“It was an intimidating sight for our neighbors,” she says. “And it was unusual because there were a lot of flames—normally fires burn low. The view from Route 340, which was west of the fire, was incredible. It almost looked liked a superhighway with the number of jam-packed cars trying to get a look at the flames.”
The concern turns now to the invasive plants and insects that could take advantage of the destruction left behind. Existing populations of tree of heaven, aka ailanthus, princess tree and oriental bittersweet love disturbances such as wildfires, says Paull. Part of the potential funding would go toward monitoring their growth.
“Crews for the next three years will perform seek-and-destroy missions,” he explains. “Basically going after specific plants and either hand pulling them or using a herbicide to remove them.”
Money would also go toward tracking the condition of native Eastern hemlock populations. The evergreens were already under attack in the forest by a sap-sucking insect that originated in Asia, and Paull worries hemlocks were further weakened by flames. Infested trees may be treated with an insecticide to help them survive.
Both Comer and Paull echo the same point —despite being daunting to control, fire can have advantageous effects on forest health.
“From an ecological standpoint, a lot of that area is going to benefit from the fire,” Paull says of the land surrounding Rocky Mountain. “There is the concern of hemlocks and the exotic plants, but most of the vegetation will be fine. It’s still alive.”
Some plants need fire to survive. The table mountain pine has cones that open to release seeds when heated. Fire also produces more nutrient rich soil, which benefits all species.
Visitors who walk the trails in the burned area under the trees see a patchwork of colors. Ferns and wildflowers are sprouting from the blackened earth. Charred limbs remain in some spots, but the signs of rebuilding are there.
“Even though you may burn a tree to the ground—really all you’ve done is top-killed it,” Paull says. “The roots are still alive, and it will resprout.”
- The Rocky Mountain wildfire burned 10,326 acres
- Its location was northeast of Grottoes in Rockingham County
- The fire was declared 100 percent contained on April 29
- Suppression efforts cost $4.2 million
- It was the second-largest fire in park history
- 350 firefighters and support personnel arrived to assist from 33 states