Albion Monitor /News

Bishop Pine is Big Loser and Big Winner

Point Reyes Fire Good News for Nature

by Simone Wilson

The fire set in motion a process delayed by decades of fire prevention

Bishop pines were nature's big losers in the early October fire that burned over 8,000 acres of the Point Reyes National Seashore, but it turns out the picturesque trees were the big winners, too. The tight-fisted pinecones only open in the heat of a fire, and a wildfire is just what the forest on Inverness Ridge needed to rejuvenate itself.

The Vision fire started October 3 near the summit of Mt. Vision on Inverness Ridge. Before it was over, the conflagraton had destroyed 45 homes and structures on the east side of the ridge, in the pricey hillside neighborhood above the town of Inverness on Tomales Bay. On the west side it swept through the Bishop Pine forest along the ridge and down through coastal scrub to the sea, roaring over grasslands and dune habit and even scorching the park's riparian corridors. About 14 percent of the Point Reyes National Seashore burned.

As tragic as the fire was for homeowners, in the plant community it set in motion a process delayed by decades of fire prevention. Heat from the fire loosened the sap that normally grips the cone of the Bishop Pine. The spring-loaded cones shot off seeds in all directions, scattering them all over the ash-covered hillsides.

Gary Fellers, research biologist at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, walked the blackened land 10 days after the fire. "The cones are all open and seeds are being released," says Fellers. "We can expect little seedlings by this spring." Cones will open on a really hot day, too, says Michael Ellis, a naturalist who's been leading field seminars in Pt. Reyes National Seashore for 20 years. "I've walked through the forest there on a hot September day and heard the cones popping."

But only a forest fire will trigger the widespread release of seeds the Bishop Pine forest needs to regenerate a whole stand of trees. Bishop Pines live about 70 or 80 years, and if fire is suppressed through its life cycle, a whole grove can die out without ever reseeding. The fire that liberates the seeds also destroys the previous grove, so Bishop Pine forests don't have a range of old and young trees. "There's no age mix," says Ellis, "That's the nature of fire pines -- they all grow up together." Fire also burns away the duff on the forest floor, so seedlings can get started without being choked by debris. No major fire had hit the park for 50 or 60 years, and Bishop Pines on the ridge were at least that that old. Says Ellis, "I'd take groups through the forest and say tell people, 'These Bishop pines need a fire -- they're old and senescent'" -- a scientific term meaning the pines were on their last legs.

Of course in a major fire some trees simply burn up, cones and all, says Ellis. "It's not the bionic pine."

Coast Miwok traditionally set regular fires in the oak woodland

The Bishop is one of California's five "fire pines," pines that horde their seeds until a blaze comes along as a wake-up call. The others are the Monterey, Coulter, Knobcone, and Grey (formerly called Digger pine). Bishop pines grow best in the coastal fog belt, and most of the Point Reyes' Bishops were along the ridge where the fire started. Before people arrived on the local scene, lightning was the only source of wildfires that swept through coastal and woodland habitat. "The bay area only averages about three lightning days a year, which isn't a lot," says Ellis, "but it's enough for the vegetation to be adapted to periodic fires."

Then Native Americans showed up and helped things along. The Coast Miwok, who lived in Marin and southern Sonoma Counties, set regular fires in the oak woodland, perfecting a sort of Acorn Management Program. The Miwok set fires in the oak woodland because the first acorn crop of the season had worms, explains Carlos Porrata, longtime ranger at Tomales Bay State Park. Acorns were the Miwok's number one source of food. "They'd let those first acorns drop to the ground and then burn underneath the oaks," says Porrata. "Then the second crop would be just great." Deer were their second greatest source of food," adds naturalist Ellis, "and deer do better in secondary growth than in deep forest."

Next spring will be outstanding for wildflowers

A center swath of the National Seashore looks like a charred wasteland right now. But disaster, say rangers and naturalists, is the prelude to habitat renaissance.

"As soon as it rains again the hills are going to be incredibly green," says Ellis, "because there's no dry vegetation to mask the green." "It'll be better for some species," says Ranger Dell'Osso. "We'll see an increase in seeding eating birds like sparrows and goldfinches." Native black-tailed deer in the park are behaving normally, says park biologist Fellers. They're nibbling on plants in the moister riparian habitats and even browsing in burned areas, where inch-long blades of new grass have already popped up.

But European Fallow Deer, introduced in the 1940's and 50's, are stressed out, like disaster victims in shock. "They're feeding at times and in places they normally wouldn't," says Fellers. "They don't seem to have much energy. You can walk right up to them."

Bats, little noticed by park visitors, have been displaced from favorite hang-outs in the burned area. But in the park's bat species, including long-legged myotis and long-eared myotis, will benefit in the long run, says Fellers, who takes a special interest in the nocturnal creatures. "They roost in crevices and under bark," he explains. "The fire has created new snags and other bat-friendly habitat" Reptiles and small, burrowing mammals like mice were trapped in the fire, but birds and larger animals outran it, taking refuge in parkland on either side of the fire.

Most plant life will regenerate quickly. Coyote bush, the hardy mainstay of coastal chaparral, will resprout. "We had a small fire out on Limantour Spit last year, and the coyote bush came back in about two months," says Dell'Osso. "And next spring will be outstanding for wildflowers." The park service doesn't plan to reseed the par artificially except in a few cases where erosion threatens the hillsides.

"For people whose homes burned, this was a real tragedy," says Dell'Osso, "but we can see now it's real good for the area -- the wildlife is coming back. It's a truism that aggressive fire suppression produces a build-up of fallen limbs, acorns, and leaf litter, making a big fire almost inevitable.

"The role of fire is crucial in this habitat" says Tomales Bay Ranger Carlos Porrata. "We've stopped the fires for so long that it was hard to do even controlled burns, because there was so much fuel. That can only go on so long."

Albion Monitor October 30, 1995 (

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