Trees’ greatest enemy might be boon to oaks

Dear editor,

The Comox Valley Naturalists plan to burn three small patches of grass in the Courtenay Airpark.

Dear editor,

The Comox Valley Naturalists with permission from the City of Courtenay are planning to burn three small patches of grass in the Courtenay Airpark sometime in the next few weeks.

Why would anyone want to set a fire to this popular park? In fact this is very small experiment and we only hope to burn three small plots measuring eight-by-eight metres each.

For many years now the Comox Valley Naturalists have been working  to create a  small Garry oak meadow in the Courtenay Airpark. We started over 15 years ago by removing the Scotch broom, which once  dominated the site.

This was followed  by 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.

While we have had some success, many of the plantings have struggled. We hope that by burning we will not only control some of the invasive plants present but also improve conditions for the native plant seed we plan to sow on the site.

Burning is not a new idea, and it appears that historically, fire was an important component of the Garry oak 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 suppressed and this helps to keep a meadow from changing into a forest. Without fire, it appears the Garry Oak ecosystem is a transitional phenomenon.

Burning also releases a quick flush of nutrients into the soil to the benefit of the grasses 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.

The Comox Valley Naturalists attempted this prescribed burn in October. Unfortunately, an untimely rain shower prevented ignition.  This was followed by a very wet autumn. We are currently waiting for a few dry days to allow this experiment to proceed.

A burning permit will be obtained from the Courtenay Fire Department, and a burn plan submitted. Safety is paramount and plenty of volunteers will be on hand to prevent the fire from escaping.

Smoke generated is expected to be minimal and temporary.

Frank Hovenden,

Comox Valley Naturalists Society

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