It is a rare opportunity to watch an ecological recovery close up.
Less than two months after a wildfire threatened nearby homes and scorched about 150 acres of forest and grassy hillsides on Cowboy Hill in the middle of Rapid City, the black burn is turning green with spring.
And visitors to the popular hiking-and-biking area can’t help but be moved by the magic of a regenerating landscape.
“It’s just beautiful up there,” Rapid City resident Janie Sirlona said Monday, following an outing that she said was highlighted by a visit to the recovering burn area. “We saw a cardinal up there, and blue jays and finches, and all kinds of flowers. They’re just now growing. Everything is so freshly green. I think they should do controlled burns around the whole mountain.”
Prescribed burns can be problematic anywhere, but especially in the middle of a city. And the damage to the forested parts of the burn area is clear in toasted trees and charcoal-like boulders.
But there is no denying the power of fire in restoring a piece of landscape that could use a new start, as most could from time to time. And the once-threatening location of the blaze, which required a fast-and-aggressive response from fire crews to protect adjoining neighborhoods, makes the burn area an unplanned point of ecological instruction in clear view of the city.
Class is in session every day.
“It’s kind of unique to have a fire like that right there in Rapid City so people can see what happens after a fire,” said Blaine Cook, a forest silviculturist with the Black Hills National Forest in Custer.
What happens first, of course, is ugly. The smoldering landscape appears devoid of life immediately after the turn. Almost certainly it is not.
Unless the fire burns so hot it sterilizes the earth, new life waits to grow fairly quickly. And it didn’t take long on Cowboy Hill for eruptions of color to appear in the fields of black.
Early spring risers showed up as expected. They included fields of pasqueflowers, followed by other flowering plants that botanists refer to as forbes.
Kelly Owens, a botanist on the Mystic Ranger District on the Black Hills National Forest, said fire clears off thick layers or old grasses and other vegetation, allowing other plants to grow.
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“On a grass-dominated slope, there can be an accumulation of thatch over the years that makes it so some forbes like pasqueflowers can’t grow,” Owens said. “They can lie dormant for quite some time, just waiting for the right conditions to emerge. I’m sure the grasses will come back pretty strong this year. But because that thatch layer is gone, there’s going to be a lot more opportunity for forbes to come up, too.”
Owens’ work includes surveying areas of forest - sometimes on hands and knees - prior to timber sales to identify sensitive plant species. And she said it is likely that certain tiny ferns will be a part of the re-growth on Cowboy Hill. Their common name is grape fern but Owens tends to use the scientific handle of Botrychium.
Whatever the name, two of them are rare in the Black Hills.
“I would bet that there are some botrychium up there,” she said, referring to the Cowboy Hill burn. “Maybe not the rare kind, but I’ll bet there are some up there.”
But visitors won’t have crawl around on the ground to find something worth seeing. Larger, more dramatic native plants will be emerging. And the forested areas will see new life, including fresh stands of ponderosa pine.
“It might not be immediate. But we’re known for our prolific pine regeneration,” Cook said. “And when we get a cycle of good spring rains and pollen from pine trees, the following years see a flush.”
Timely and gentle rains this spring have helped the renewal process on Cowboy Hill. They also might be increasing the percentage of partially burned pine trees that survive.
Steve Hasenohrl, a forester and assistant chief of administration for the state Wildland Fire Suppression Division, said partially singed trees that are half green or even less can survive in the right conditions.
“It’s never definite, but if we get some good moisture and growing conditions are good, some of the stuff you think might not make it will survive,” Hasenohrl said. “Trees can be pretty resilient. And even if some trees don’t make it, ponderosa pine is a prolific re-seeder, very good at regeneration.”
At the same time the burn area instructs at regeneration, it also should serve as a reminder of the dangers that exist in the forest. The thinner stands of trees and larger expanses of grass helped in controlling the Cowboy Hill blaze. Had it reached thicker stands of forest elsewhere, it would have been much harder to contain, Lt. Tim Weaver of the Rapid City Fire Department said.
“Had that fire burned on a different hillside that was heavily populated...the outcome would have been much different,” Weaver said. “We witnessed what a plain old grass fire would do on the slopes inside city limits. It was pretty impressive. Throw in some timber and homes and you have a national news story.”
Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or firstname.lastname@example.org