Fire and the Garry Oak
The Wetland Restoration Project had a unique opportunity to experiment with a prescribed burn in the Courtenay River Airpark recently. Why would we want to burn this popular park? In fact this is very much an experiment and we only hope to burn three small plots. Our goal in the Courtenay River Airpark has been to create a small Garry oak meadow. This is a threatened ecosystem here on Vancouver Island. To this end we have been planting Garry oaks and the associated shrubs such as Nootka rose, snowberry and Oregon grape. In recent years we have also seeded the site with camas and other small forbs collected from nearby areas of the estuary.
It appears that historically fire was an important component of this ecosystem. The First Nations used fire as a tool to manipulate the landscape for their purposes of agriculture and hunting. Fire has the effect of stopping or slowing the natural succession in an ecosystem. On Vancouver Island there is a natural tendency for conifers such as Douglas-fir to slowly invade meadows. As they grow the meadow quickly reverts to a forest. Plants such as camas, which were valuable food plants, grow in meadows but will not survive in the shade of a forest.
By burning the meadows on a regular basis, young conifers are killed and this helps to keep a meadow from changing into a forest. Without fire it appears the Garry Oak ecosystem is a short lived phenomenon.
Burning also releases a quick flush of nutrients into the soil to the benefit of the grasses, forbs and other plants. The effect of burning on invasive plants is less understood. This is why we plan to proceed slowly with this experiment. It is thought that the Garry oak itself is able to tolerate a low intensity burn.
We have set up three plots measuring 8m by 8m in the Airpark. They have different aspects and positions on the slope. We have taken photos and done plant survey in these plots. Club member Bob Bartsch has taken the photos of the plots while Helen Robinson has helped with the plant identification. There has been a great enthusiasm by club members for this project. Within the club there is considerable expertise with many ex-forestry workers from both government ministries and private industry.
We have had an unusual dry Autumn which quickly changed. We have gone from a situation where it was too dry to safely burn, to one where it is too wet to get ignition. On the third week of Oct. looked like we had a short window of opportunity. Unfortunately the small weather envelope closed with an untimely shower that dampened the ground sufficiently to snuff out our plans. Although our attempt was unsuccessful, valuable lessons were learned from what turned out to be a trial run. We hope that we can try again in the early spring when conditions are more favourable.
Once again thanks to all the club members who turned out to help with the burn and who have supported the Wetland Restoration Project over the years.