By HEATHER HACKING - Staff Writer
Posted: 02/01/2009 12:00:00 AM PST
BUTTE VALLEY -- Last June when fire burned the perimeter of Butte College, officials were thanking firefighters who had set up camp at the community college for saving all college structures.
But the hillsides around the campus were blackened.
After the drama of what could have happened subsided, nature took over. And biology instructor Mike Williams said the recently blackened hills are a teacher's dream.
The recovery of the landscape will be a source of research projects for a decade for students at Butte.
Fire has been suppressed for the past 100 years. But when Native Americans managed the land, grasslands were burned annually.
Chaparral, which is shrub land in Mediterranean climate, was burned less frequently - about every seven years, Williams said.
After the recent fires, the plants are coming back.
Williams said residents this spring will see wildflowers the likes of which they have never seen.
Many plants are fire-stimulated. Also, the fires removed thatch, which had shaded out many plants.
Nutrients are also released after fire, making the plants "just take off and go crazy," he said, excitement in his voice.
"Right now almost every handful of soil is completely filled with lily bulbs," Williams said, predicting "magnificent displays of flowers."
This spring will include a flurry of wildflower tours through groups such as the Mount Lassen Chapter of the Native Plant Society and Audubon Society, Williams predicted.
He suggested that the public could also contact Butte College to ask about future field trips.
"It is an exciting opportunity, really incredible," he said.
Williams said he sees a lot of possibilities for opening up the lands for an open-air classroom.
Recently Williams was working and saw 15 deer walk right past. The does and fawns were grazing on new sprouts, which are six inches high from just the smattering of rain the area has received.
With the nutrients released from the fires, the sprouts are tastier, like "the difference between eating just an apple and eating a great apple," he said.
He's seen coyote tracks and three sets of bobcat tracks, and evidence of foxes throughout the area.
Also, the quail are abundant.
"The field biology students will be looking at tracks, the zoology class collecting insects, biology class will be checking out species of wildflowers."
He predicted classes will be able to sit in one spot and identify 40 plants, whereas in the past they might need to wander to find that many.
He noted the fires were on the north side of campus, but the south side was not touched.
"Fire has been a part of plant evolution for millions of years. Human fire suppression was done with good intentions, but caused great chaos," he said.
"Not many campuses have that luxury. We're right in the right location with blue oak foothill woodland," he said.
Recently, Williams was checking on soil moisture meters located at different soil depths that will study how the soil changes, especially after fire.
For future visits, Williams suggested people contact the main Biology Department at 895-2589 and ask to be put on a list for tours.
He said excursions are already being scheduled for weekends. School trips can be planned for weekdays.
By next year, the big burst of the post-fire will diminish, he said.
Staff writer Heather Hacking can be reached at 896-7758 or firstname.lastname@example.org.