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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
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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.  
 
pollinator
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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.
 
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