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Ecologist Allie Weill on Wildfire and Hiking in “Phoenix Landscapes”

This trailblazing fire ecologist is making a difference in the world of hiking and land regeneration.

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Allie Weill is a California fire ecologist and the lead author of a study published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire about how hikers relate to landscapes scarred by flames. She takes pains to prevent fires, but once the smoke clears, she’s among the first out there to study, learn, and appreciate the beauty in the blackened landscape.

Backpacker: In your article you wrote: “Residents of fire-prone landscapes may benefit from…visits to local burn sites throughout the recovery period.” How?

Allie Weill: My study came out of the Wragg Fire in the California Coast Ranges. It’s a popular hiking area that was totally denuded. A friend and I went to scope it out a month after it burned. There hadn’t been any rain yet, but there were already little bits of green resprouting here and there, which was pretty incredible. At the same time, the trail infrastructure was destroyed. But when the first rains came in the winter, it was just beautiful. Shrub skeletons were sticking up, with this mossy green underlayer.

allie weill
(Photo: Allie Weill)

BP: So you’re a fan of the burned landscape, on some level?

AW: It was so cool. A friend of mine was doing research in Yosemite after the Rim Fire in 2013. The following spring it was just otherworldly to see the shapes of the burned trees on the landscape. I got this idea to survey people about the experience of hiking in that space, as well as whether it prompted people to think about fire more generally, and also just what people knew about wildfire.

BP: What did you find?

AW: People thought the hiking experience was much better than they expected. They wrote some really interesting and lovely things about getting to see nature recovering, regrowth, and rebirth. Someone called it a “phoenix landscape;” somebody else called it a “spooky forest.” They loved how the views opened up. And they also enjoyed seeing this process of nature. It helped with their healing experience. Seeing the recovery is very powerful.

BP: What about the plants and animals?

AW: Many plants and animals take advantage of and even depend on post-fire environments—even after severe fires. The black-backed woodpecker is a pretty well-known example. This bird likes to nest in snags: standing dead, burned tree trunks, where it’s easy to find the bark- and wood-boring beetles that they eat. They like moderate- and high-severity burn areas, or a mix, where there are lots of snags. There are beetles that are specifically attracted to wildfire smoke and lay their eggs in burned dead or dying trees—sometimes when they are still smoldering. Fire can make habitats that animals like.

Historically, indigenous people burned for different reasons. It could clear areas for hunting so deer could move around the landscape more freely. Fish can be negatively affected if a river is shaded, and then the vegetation burns and it increases the temperature of the river. But fire also unlocks nutrients, and the landscape is more open. There are plants that particularly thrive in those settings, and seeds may be triggered to germinate by the fire, heat, and smoke. A year or two after a fire, you can get some lovely flower pulses.

BP: Are there other challenges to plant life, aside from the obvious ones?

AW: Ideally a place would burn and new, beautiful flowers and plants would come in. But it’s also prime space for invasive species, which makes it more likely to burn again in the future. All over the West we have tons of invasive annual grasses, and they burn more easily than what was there before. They also create fuel in a place that never really burned before, like in the desert. Fire burns, invasive grasses come in, they burn again, more grasses come in and so on. It can convert entire habitats.

BP: What should Backpacker readers look out for?

AW: Invasive grasses are carried a lot by people who are out in the backcountry. Cheatgrass is the biggie in more arid areas like the desert and the Great Basin. Brush off your boots before a hike!

BP: What are some other risks for hikers?

AW: Smoke can affect huge areas. It’s not healthy, and it’s not pleasant. It’s become something to factor into your plans in a way that it never has before. Sometimes you can appreciate the burned landscape and see the beauty. Sometimes it’s just sad and ugly
when things are lost.

BP: How can we help avoid the “sad and ugly”?

AW: Don’t make fires where you’re not allowed to make fires. A campfire used to be such a characteristic part of being out in nature, but it’s different now. Some backpackers don’t even bring a stove. They just soak their ramen cold.

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