The Bastrop Fires of 2011 and the importance of biological catastrophe

A breeze moved the highest limbs, giving the impression of life. The stillness might have been beautiful, abstract, as if we had stepped into an ancient Japanese painting of a few black lines. Not a bird sang, not a cricket stridulated, for these were now territories of no value. This is a dead forest. Highly endangered Houston toads have lost most of their habitat. The remaining pines of the great southern loblolly savanna are alone.

We walked deeper into the forest, now freed of lethal understory, stepping on the black pine needles, until our car, parked on the shoulder of Highway 21, was out of sight. Here it was even more silent. We searched for a sign of green. Instead, we saw broken lines of gray ash against the black needles, defining vanished fallen logs. The contours of the land stood out. Here was a dip, there a hillock, equally burned.

Did the heat penetrate deep enough to sterilize the soil? Will the new plants find their microbial symbionts when they recolonize? Are my beloved social amoebae somewhere down there? Does this even matter in the face of the enormity of this fire? It is October 2nd 2011. What will this land look like tomorrow, in ten years, or in a hundred?

From Wikipedia, Bastrop County Complex Fire and 2011 Texas fires, the facts are clear. The fires began on September 4th, 2011, probably when branches blown by Tropical Storm Lee hit power lines in Circle D-KC Estates and Tahitian Village. The fires were 98% contained by September 27th. Over 34,000 acres, 53 square miles, burned, destroying 1645 homes, insured for $325,000,000. Two people, including the brother of a friend of my daughter’s, were killed. Buescher State Park was untouched, but Bastrop State park lost all but a hundred or so of its 5926 wonderful acres, including some historic Civilian Conservation Corps buildings.

The fire scar on the landscape is in the shape of an arrowhead, pointing mostly north, very slightly east. The burn area is cut in uneven thirds by highways 21, from San Marcos to Texas A & M, and 71, from Columbus to Austin. What is 53 square miles? It is the size of Moorea island, sister to Tahiti, tropical and blue, ringed with reefs. It is the area of the Denver airport. It is a square 7.28 miles on a side. It is far smaller than the Yellowstone fires of 1988.

In our lives, as in biological processes, gradualism predominates. I wonder if I would recognize my time usage across a day in my life from twenty years ago. Gradual changes come with aging children, evolving food tastes, and the internet. Sudden change comes with births, deaths, or moves. Much evolutionary change is gradual, as gene frequencies change. Ecological change is also often gradual. The aspens in my parent’s Michigan back yard have died and are being replaced with oaks and hickories, mostly. Sudden change, catastrophic for the unchanging, is also a part of nature. The first fusing of two bacteria to make a eukaryote was a profound evolutionary jump, for example. Change can be the result of something nothing has adapted to, like a massive meteorite impact or volcano eruption, or the invasion of an alien, human-transported species. But it can also be something to be counted on, something essential for maintaining the habitat and its endemic organisms.

Fire may seem catastrophic, but it is natural, even essential in many habitats. Plants have evolved in concert with the fires of their environment and feed those fires to suit them. Pines are fuel for fires. Grasslands may only be maintained by fire. Fire is an active area of ecological research.

Fire not only affects plants, but also animals. The lovely collared lizards of the Ozark glades are endangered, not because there are no more glades, not because they are hunted for their lovely blue throats, but because of fire suppression. Only after fires clear the surrounding forest do they move from one glade to another, with denser populations colonizing sparser ones, according to the Alan Templeton team’s excellent work.

So, what went wrong? Why were the Texas fires so bad last year? To oversimplify, there were two reasons: excessive drought and too few fires in the previous decades. Whether the drought was caused by humans may be unclear, but the paucity of fires is certainly our fault. Smoky the bear was simply wrong. Regular fires clear the understory, kill some smaller trees, but leave the larger ones to flourish. They depend on them and often feed them. We reduce fires at our peril. But allowing them, or even setting them, is less possible when humans mingle their homes with fire-needy forests and prairies.

I have driven from Houston to Austin and from Austin to Houston on 71 hundreds of times. I partly chose this route for the forested Bastrop hills and for the piney lushness and break from post oak scrub. This fire has changed that, as the other Texas fires have changed landscapes elsewhere. If only we could embrace fires in Texas, in the Ozarks, in Yellowstone, and on every fire-sculpted landscape before they become deadly.

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A burned forest.

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Fallen needles on burned needles.

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Are any of these trees still living?

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The fire jumped the road, spottily.

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Remnants of a forest home.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Environment, Natural areas, State Parks. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Bastrop Fires of 2011 and the importance of biological catastrophe

  1. George Webb says:

    Thanks for your description! I went biking through the Bastrop forest just before Thanksgiving — a popular biking route that is part of the MS 150 route. It was intriguing and a bit alien. The soil in the most burnd areas fascinated me — it looked so sticky that I was afraid to step in it for fear I would lose my shoe. For some reason I was guessing perhaps hoping) that the fire might have made the soil extremely rich, but that was a completely uninformed guess on my part.
    Again, thanks for posting and happy New Year!

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