Ecology

The Phoenix Rises: Four Years After the Fire in Waterton

By August 18, 2021 No Comments

 

We’re in the midst of another historic wildfire season in Canada’s west. But in all the news about evacuations, towns under threat, and area burned (over 700,000 hectares in B.C. so far), you don’t hear much about what happens after the fires have gone out.

The Prince of Wales Hotel on the morning of September 12, 2017, with the Kenow Fire burning behind it. Photo courtesy of Parks Canada and Fortis Alberta.

Last month, I was in Waterton Lakes National Park for the third time since the big Kenow Fire of 2017. I’ve written about the aftermath of the fire before, in 2018 and 2020, but with each year there are dramatic changes, so this summer I wanted to focus on berries.

I did three days of hiking with my friends Edwin and Alice, and we passed flourishing patches of Saskatoon berries, thimbleberries and wild blueberries. At one point, I stepped into a patch of thimbleberries that were almost up to my shoulders. In the same spot on September 12, 2017, the day after the fire, there would have been dead trees and blackened soil for as far as the eye could see.

A patch of thimbleberries on the Bertha Lake trail in July, 2021. Photo by Edwin Knox.

How could these berry bushes come back so quickly? To find out, I looked them up in the US Forest Service’s amazing Fire Effects Information System, and the answers jumped out. The entries for the three plants – all with multiple research citations – were peppered with lines like “top-killed plants sprout from rhizomes,” “thimbleberry reaches or exceeds prefire abundance soon after fire,” and “deeply buried rhizomes enable Saskatoon berry to sprout after even the most intense wildfire.” These bushes have come back from roots, not seeds, and with warm black soil, fertilizer from the fire , and lots of sunshine, they are turbocharged to grow.

Saskatoon berries coming ripe in Waterton in July, right in the heart of the Kenow burn.

The upshot is a bumper crop of berries this year, and that’s good news for many mammal and bird species. During my visit, there were already Cedar Waxwings flying around in search of fruit, and I saw a black bear feasting on berries along the Red Rock Parkway.

I worry deeply about people whose homes and livelihoods are threatened by the fires in BC this summer, but in Waterton, the Phoenix is rising, and it will rise in other areas after the burns of 2021 are done.