Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dry Spring

Summer is nearly upon us. And for the first time in a few years I feel like the weather has progressed in an appropriate fashion, slowly transitioning out of winter, warming up in early spring, some hot days in May, but generally a constant increase in temperature without a lot of fluctuation. The hills were spring green, the flowers bloomed, and now as we move into summer they’re taking on their more traditional ‘golden’ color.  I consider it an almost perfect spring.
Perfect except for the lack of moisture. It’s looking to be a dry summer. Three small blazes have already occurred in and around the area. One from lightning, one from a campfire, and the most recent may be linked to fireworks. While two of those were easily preventable (i.e. don’t play with fire outside in the summer), it still bodes poorly for this summer’s fire season.
It’s been a dry spring. That’s not to say there is or will be a lack of water. Last I looked the river was flowing along just fine, full of cold and (somewhat) clear water. Water still flows from our taps and our lawns are just as green as ever. The snowpack near the end of winter was just about where it needed to be to ensure proper water flows down the rivers and through our pipes.
The lack of spring moisture will be felt more in the hills and forests. Areas we can’t just turn on the sprinkler and let the water flow upon the parched land. And guess what? The native plants don’t care. There’s a reason they’re native. They survive and thrive in this climate. Going for a few months without water from the sky is natural.
Some of them survive by doing all their growing and flowering in the spring when there’s water available from snowmelt. At this point annuals usually die off leaving behind their seeds to sprout up the following spring. Some perennials die back and wait out the summer, fall, and winter, sprouting with new growth when spring comes again. Other plants survive and grow throughout the year by sinking roots deep into the soil to get at the water that never quite evaporates.
The problem is invasive plants thrive in this climate as well. They’re invasive because they can outcompete native plants. Whether by taking over areas native plants don’t usually grow, colonizing a disturbed area quicker, or some combination of these and other reasons.
Wildfires are a natural part of the ecosystem. And in a healthy ecosystem they generally burn quickly through an area and move on. The problem we have is the amount of material present creates dangerous fire conditions. Invasive plants grow around natives filling in what may have been a ‘natural’ fire break. Lack of fire over several years allows native plants to grow bigger and spread over a larger area than they have historically. All this leads to bigger and bigger fires.
Which can be counteracted by higher levels of moisture. It’s hard for fires to burn through green grass or damp soil. If there had been more spring rain the three small fires this year might not have occurred. Rain can counteract an unhealthy aspect of an ecosystem. The thing is we can’t count on the rain. Our area is dry and prone to fires. Hoping for moisture won’t change that.
Many wildfires can be prevented through safe outdoor activities: no campfires, no sparks, etc. But the lightning strike that started the first wildfire this year is not something we can control. Lightning is a natural process and was the original igniter for the natural wildfire cycle of our area. Putting it out was probably the correct thing to do. Wildfires have been suppressed long enough that to let them burn unchecked will lead to massive ecological and property damage. But we’ve also reached the point that any wildfires that do start will take on a life of their own and provide a real challenge to control and stop.
Funny how a lack of falling water from the sky can have such an impact on our area. We’ll probably be fine. Most people are safe when they’re outdoors in the middle of the summer with the fire danger. And hopefully it doesn’t turn into a smoky, miserable summer.