The mid-October MEA weekend was a busy one for me. The weather was wonderfully warm. When temperatures reached the 80s on Thursday I just couldn't stick to the "to do" list and went horseback riding instead.
While playing and working balanced out nicely with the balmy weather, I had one eye and ear tuned to the television news reports of the wildfire burning at Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area. It had started on Wednesday at a private residence near the border of the public land. Although the resident had a burning permit and thought he had put out the fire, he failed to extinguish the embers completely.
Hours later rising winds from the southwest fanned the burn residue into flames, which quickly gobbled the dry grasses and spread rapidly into neighboring yards and into the 23,000-acre Carlos Avery site. Several houses and pets were lost and one man was burned significantly as he tried to save his home.
Carlos Avery is host to the Wildlife Science Center, an educational facility that houses wildlife, including wolves. As I watched footage of the uncontrolled fire I was concerned for the safety of the captive and free creatures who live on the WMA and sanctuary. News coverage failed to mention the fate of any wildlife.
Trees were not the only victims of the fire at Carlos Avery WMA. Where the blaze was intense WMA signs were burned, bubbled and unreadable.
The fire raged for several days, cutting a ragged diagonal path through the woods and wetlands, fields and farm plots. People were evacuated and blankets of thick smoke covered and closed down Interstate Highway 35 near Stacy.
Almost two weeks after the fire started there were still a few residual "hot spots." I was really curious about how the burn affected the area, its inhabitants and their habitat, so I arranged to do an on-site "Venture North" filming at Carlos Avery. The PBS videographer, Venture North program host, Carlos Avery wildlife manager, DNR nongame specialists and I all met at the WMA and proceeded to evaluate some of the effects of the burn. We spent a good portion of the day appraising various aspects of the fire. In open areas where high wind forced the fire to move quickly, the landscape was barely singed. Bluebird houses, although sooty, remained standing and serviceable. Acorns and newly fallen oak leaves, almost unscathed by the heat, littered the blackened ground. I cracked a few acorns and bit into the cream-colored meat to see if the food was tainted by smoke. It wasn't.
The brown acorns contrasted starkly against the ebony earth. The wildlife manager commented there were deer foraging for the nuts almost immediately after flames departed from an area. It was easy pickings. As we discussed the situation, two opportunistic blue jays arrived on the scene to harvest a few acorns.
Other spots in the woods where the fire was fed by ample fuel, the bases of large deciduous trees were still smoldering. It was clear the blaze not only burned intensely, but lingered and in some cases, continued to damage the internal cellular structure of the trees.
A handful of heavy construction equipment operators and yellow-shirted Indiana fire chasers were still on the scene. We asked them if they had seen any wildlife. A couple said they'd seen numerous snakes as they were tromping through the fire's aftermath. Snakes as well as many other small mammals easily escaped the blaze by retreating to underground havens.
We were especially interested in checking out the sole eagle nest on the property. Nearing the vicinity we spotted the pair of eagles, who vocalized loudly before taking flight at our approach. It was disappointing to see the base of the nest tree emitting curls of smoke.
In order to leave the eagles in peace we retreated and continued our assessment. Thinking the nest tree was probably doomed, we looked for other sizable trees suitable for nesting. A few weeks later, the eagles' tree toppled over.
Winding through the reserve we noted pine trees burned to a crisp next to fire-tolerant oaks that still had clinging leaves. Corn stalks were still standing, but the outer husks had been consumed by flames. New sprigs of green grass shot up through the charred ash. Where the blaze was intense, WMA signs were burned, bubbled and unreadable.
There was a notable absence of birds with the exception of flocks of migrating red-winged blackbirds and waterfowl. Other than three deer we spotted no other mammals, although we did see numerous holes in the ground with fresh dirt around them.
All in all, we agreed the fire had minimum impact on the habitat and inhabitants. We further speculated Carlos Avery would quickly repair itself and next spring, due to the heat-absorbing properties of the blackened landscape, would become lush and green earlier than adjacent unburned areas. Of course, we need to remember Mother Nature has for eons used fire as one of her wildlife management tools. For ages plants and animals have evolved survival strategies to cope with fire and, while this particular fire started by the hand of man, Mother Nature's unfailing healing power still reigned.
Note: For those of you have "The Traveler's Guide to Wildlife in Minnesota" (Henderson, Lambrecht, et al) Carlos Avery is site number 82. You may want to look it up to get a better picture of the layout of the land.
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