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Writing on the Wild Side #9: Fire in the Heat of the Summer

August 4, 2015

By Mike Denny: WOW has it ever been nice and toasty here in the Walla Walla Valley. July melted into a warm, hazy, smoky mist and was gone. August is suddenly here in the white hot glare of the summer sun.

Blue Creek FireJust east of Walla Walla an event occurred that will force change. There was a 6000+ acre fire that was human caused. Fire during dry hot weather conditions has happened for thousands of years here in the northern Blue Mountains. The dynamics of a fire event on natural systems is truly amazing.

This year by the end of June it was as dry as it normally is by mid July and by mid July we looked around and the forest and foothills looked like the average mid-August. The interesting thing is when the Blue Creek fire started most all the flowering plants were already in seed or had slipped into dormancy many weeks ahead of the average summer. The native grasses had also gone dormant for the year. The higher air temps also forced many small mammals to go into starvation or a form of hibernation that lasts, for some mammal species, until fall rains arrive and some plants green up. For others they will emerge next February and March ready to eat green shoots and bulbs in preparation to breeding.

Fire is a natural agent of change. It often re-starts the clock on plant communities. All plant communities grow towards a climax, a station, an apex where there is nowhere for that community to go so it becomes static. Fire allows for clean-up of downed wood, thick dense brush, rank grass stands and in a mosaic burn creates openings that allow new plants to emerge. It also brings forth new seed from cones that burst under heat in a fire that starts to grow the next spring. Fire demands re-birth and forces new growth. It opens up closed systems to new species and brings a huge surge of new life after mass death of plants and animals from the heat.

Next spring plan to drive up Blue Creek to Five Points and on up Black Snake Ridge and look at all the new green growth that has appeared and the massive numbers of other animals that are attracted to burned areas. Fire also creates loss and new opportunities. With the Blue Creek fire put out through a hard fought battle that took many hundreds of fire fighters and millions of dollars to squash, the Klicker Mountain area will slowly over time start growing towards where it was before the fire. You will have to come see this spectacular re-birth.

Male Great Spangeled Fritilary-Pyan Hollow (Custom)Under the warm summer sun is an insect few pay attention to unless it lands in front of them or draws their kid’s attention. A large, very bright and beautiful species of butterfly that inhabits from 2100’ of elevation on up and is also unique because it is sexually dimorphic. I am writing about the Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), a three inch wide butterfly species that is found across most mountain ranges in the northwest and into central Canada.

This big, spectacular fritillary nectars on most thistles, goldenrod, and sorrels and lays its eggs on native violets. The odd thing about this butterfly species is that there is a noticeable disparity between populations of the sexes. In the northern Blue Mountains the ratio of males to females is about 14:1. This is really unusual as most butterfly populations have nearly a 50-50 split. What causes this imbalance is unknown. Female Great Spangled Frit-Lewis Peak Rd. (Custom)The female is black with a creamy, lacy edge along the margins of both wings. The male is a bright orange with all kinds of black lines and chevrons across the entire wing. Watch for this bright beautiful pollinator up along Tiger Canyon, Lewis Peak Rd., Coppei Creek Rd., Mud Creek Rd., and of course up on Skyline Drive in August. Watch for patches of blooming thistles as that is the food source in August up above 2000’ in the Blue Mountains.

These eye catching insects once seen will not be forgotten. They are easy to appreciate and deserve all our protection as they are part of the pollinator army that keeps the plant world healthy and our air supply sustainable. Enjoy and watch for them.

Remember Walla Walla has to be seen to be believed.

Thank-you Mike Denny