New vegetation was already established on the site of last May’s fire in the Eagle River Valley when the students in Mark Van Arsdale’s AP Biology class at Eagle River High School visited in early September. That probably wasn’t a big surprise for Van Arsdale’s students as learning about the way a forest bounces back after a fire is part of their studies. Mother Nature’s resiliency was demonstrated in full force with what he described as, “abundant new vegetation already coming up, including plenty of horsetails, mushrooms, and birch saplings.”Many of Van Arsdale’s students had seen the smoke from the fire that occurred at about the same time local fire officials had issued fire danger warnings for the Memorial Day weekend. The fire consumed 24 acres on the south side of the Eagle River drainage located just south of the Briggs Bridge. Nearly 20 Anchorage Fire Department units responded. Eagle River Valley residents were treated to a far-too-up-close look at Alaska Division of Forestry air tankers making low passes spreading retardant over the site. It was quite the spectacle as local residents waited for an evacuation order that never came. In early September, the site became a spectacle of an educational sort as students got a first-hand look at the role fire plays in ecological change and the succession of vegetation in boreal forests such as the ones that surround the local area. Since the top is a big part of Van Arsdale’s curriculum, he thought, “How cool would it be to learn about that while on an actual burn site?”He secured the necessary permits to take a group of high school students on a hike and enlisted help from Ute Olsson, the head naturalist at the Eagle River Nature Center. She was delighted to help with the project. “Actually getting to see the ecology first hand and to witness how the vegetation is coming back right here in our own backyard is a great opportunity for students,” Olsson told The ECHO News via telephone interview. She admits last May’s fire was a bit too close for comfort.“We have been living with the danger of fire in our valley for a long time now, so when it actually happened, it was scary but it also teaches us how important fire is in our ecosystem,” Olsson said, noting that the Eagle River Valley, which is not monitored via prescribed burn, is lush with fuel for fire. “That fire woke us up. We have to realize that it could happen right here.”She and Van Arsdale both noted that the fire apparently wasn’t a very hot one based on the evidence found at the site in early September.“The burn charred mostly black spruce and birch trees. The fire was contained to a small area and burned in a patchy fashion,” Van Arsdale noted. “In several places mosses on the ground remained unburned. The fire had clearly not been very hot, as vegetation and healthy roots could easily be found under the top humus layer.”Charley Peyton, a senior student in the AP Biology class, said he spotted plant life and fungi already re-establishing when he visited the site in September with his classmates.
His classwork tells him that is happening because the fire did not permeate the roots and the subterranean ecosystem.
He understands the danger a wild fire presents to nearby homes and said he was thankful the fire was extinguished quickly.
After having visited the site, Peyton said the smoke he witnessed on the day of the fire made the fire appear more dangerous than what the evidence he saw on site in September showed. He hopes others will learn the lesson of how fire actually helps a forest.“Despite its proximity to a housing district, it was beneficial that the fire started as all the nutrients will be able to return to the soil and give opportunity to higher biodiversity,” Peyton said. “I hope more people take advantage of its accessibility and have the chance to see life literally rising from the ashes.”