A Decade of Succession

The story of regrowth after an Adirondack wildfire


 

Dressed in evening gowns and tuxedos, patrons of the Ausable Club finished their meals and stepped out onto the deck to view the fiery spectacle.  Trepidation had become an uninvited guest at the club’s last buffet dinner of the season, and no one could deny its presence, for nine hundred feet above them, on the shoulder of Noonmark Mountain, flames were licking the sky as balsam-scented smoke filled the cool night air.  It was Labor Day weekend, 1999, and a blaze that would ravage and renew 92 acres of forest in the Adirondack High Peaks was just beginning.

"The fire was crowning out in these huge, old hemlock trees.  There were flames over 100 feet high in the air"

The summer of 1999 was unusually dry for the Adirondack region.  A mixture of low precipitation and high temperatures provided perfect camping weather, and the perfect fuel for a wildfire.  The tinder-box conditions did not go unnoticed by the DEC, who was considering closing trails, a somewhat bold move during one of the area’s busiest weekends.   Larry House, Ausable Club Superintendent of Grounds, was also aware of the risk.  “I was up in the woods, working near Beaver Meadow Falls with another fellow,” he says.  “We were remarking on how dry it was, and that we were liable to have a fire.  We got back to the club that night and found out it was happening.” 

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The burn zone on Noonmark

Hundreds of volunteers arrived to suppress the fire, including Tony Goodwin, executive director of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society, “Ninety-five percent of the trees in the area were down.  There was smoke rising up from various points and there was a significant threat of hot spots and flares,” he says. 

Ignited by an improperly extinguished campfire, the Noonmark blaze began high on a ridge and was driven down slope by southerly winds, straight toward the Ausable Club.
Fire-fighting crews wasted no time arriving on the scene, and attacked the fire with vigor.  Helicopters used huge, collapsible buckets to douse the flames while ground crews dug trenches, or fire breaks, to help contain it.  “Nine days after the fire started, it was still smoking.  There were concerns it could start back up again,” says Goodwin. 

The sight of trees wrapped in flames, their branches snapping beneath a plume of smoke, is an obvious sign of fire disturbance in action.  “The fire was crowning out in these huge, old hemlock trees.  There were flames over 100 feet high in the air.  It was unbelievable and terrifying,” says House.  Usually, a fire is either categorized as crown, surface, or ground, but the fire on Noonmark was all three at once.  Crown and surface fires are both readily visible, but during a ground fire there are no visible flames, just the slow, constant dismantling of the forest from the bottom up. 

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A charred tree root in the Noonmark burn zone

The forest on Noonmark had experienced such a dry spell that everything burned, including the humus, and when the humus burns, tree roots burn too. Humus, a moist, highly decomposed layer of organic matter found beneath the floor litter, is so broken down that any semblance to its previous existence is completely lost.  “When tree roots burn, the opportunity for vegetative propagation is low,” explains Ken Adams, ecology professor at SUNY Plattsburgh.  “The plants are killed above, and below, ground.”

In the end, it was not the hard work of the fire fighters that extinguished the blaze. 

On September 12, over a week after the fire began, Hurricane Floyd dumped 6 inches of rain on the Adirondacks and finally finished what the crews had started.  The club remained unscathed, but the forest was not so fortunate.  The fire reduced most of the trees to ash, and left behind the charred remains of others as a testament to its power.

The impressive, footprint shaped burn zone left on Noonmark’s shoulder is not only an indicator of death; it also marks the renewal of life.  Adams brings his students to the Noonmark burn site every year to keep tabs on how nature recovers from a fire.  By doing repeated species sampling, he is able to get an idea of what the forest might look like when it finally matures.  Since the chances of a new plant sprouting from a pre-existing plant after a ground fire are close to zero, the site has literally had a chance to start over, and it has done just that.

“There isn’t a single aspen in the surrounding forest that I am aware of. The big question is: How did it get up here?” 

Today’s burn site is a crowded mess of competition comprised mostly of white birch, fire cherry, big tooth aspen, and quaking aspen.  None of these species are strangers to post-disturbance succession, but at higher elevations like the Noonmark sight, white birch and fire cherry are the likely candidates, and they are definitely represented.  The aspens, however, pose a problem.

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The burn zone, on left, and the boundary of the adjacent forest

The presence of aspen in the regenerating forest is throwing some curve balls at anyone who has paid attention.  “In 1999, the overstory was predominantly balsam fir, red spruce and white birch.  What we have coming back is different,” says Adams.   A walk up the Henry Leach Trail to Dial reveals what Adams is referring to.  As the path enters the burn sight it draws a line, marking the boundary between the original, unburned forest, and the new regeneration.  It is a stark contrast, and no one is sure how to explain it.

The sprouting of white birch is not shocking because there are plenty of them in the adjacent, unburned forest.  Fire cherry is not surprising either, considering the seeds can lie dormant in the soil for 150 years.  What is surprising, however, is the presence of aspen. 

Several theories abound as to why aspen has been able to thrive, but none are conclusive.  Some theorize that warmer temperatures have facilitated their growth; some think a trend in wet weather conditions prior to and after the fire played a role, while others believe that the prominent layer of post fire ash gave aspen the nutrients it needs to get started.   Any one of these ideas could be correct, but a mystery still remains.  “There isn’t a single aspen in the surrounding forest that I am aware of,” says Adams.  “The big question is: How did it get up here?” 

Nature has a way of being both subtle and direct.  Even an event as dramatic as a wildfire has its own underlying offerings.  There is destruction, yes, but more importantly, there is renewal.  Adams’s big question may never be answered, and that’s ok.  In the meantime we can sit back, watching and wondering, content knowing that on the slopes of Noonmark Mountain, for whatever reason, everything is in its place.

 

Do you know anyone who witnessed the Noonmark fire?