The Dilly Fire Postmortem - What Happens After a Wildfire is Extinguished?

Nov 22, 2017

The Dilly Fire in North Woodstock burned for 36 days, closed two popular hiking trails, cost a little more than a half a million dollars and involved more than a hundred people.  The fire grabbed headlines while it burned - but NHPR’s Sean Hurley wondered what happens next?

Firefighter Jeff Parker struggles down the icy Dilly Cliffs path dragging a hundred foot section of stiff hose behind him.  

Jeff Parker (left) and Chris Haartz.
Credit Sean Hurley

Parker stops to talk with fellow firefighter – and now hose wrangler - Chris Haartz.  “They don't always corner well, especially when they are frozen stiff,” Parker tells Haartz, “And we're just trying to - instead of butterfly or rolling them out here, we're dragging them out in lengths.”

The 4,000 feet of hose laid in the forest while the fire was active, Incident Commander John Neely tells me - that will be easy enough to pull out.

What will be harder is hiding the makeshift paths the firefighters cut for better access to tricky spots - and filling in the hundreds of feet of hand dug trenches that kept the fire at bay.  

Neely pointing out one of the covered over hand lines.
Credit Sean Hurley

Neely shows me some of the backfilled trenches.  “This was all on fire at one time,” he says, “and after we put it out we've kind of dug back our hand lines, covered them up again. And then piled that brush.”

Neely takes me up a section of the Appalachian Trial, where, as he puts it, the fire once “slopped” across their line.  “So right here was where the fire crossed the trail and burnt out a big section,” he says, “so this was all black and burnt out. So the Trails Crew has kind of rehabbed this. You can sort of see it's not as obvious. It looks like it could have been a wind event.”

An enormous covering of green boughs and branches now lays atop the burned earth to one side of the trail.  “And that will help you know with erosion and visuals and just help for it to rehab faster,” Neely says.  

Trail crews covered this area to one side of the AT with green boughs and branches to rehab, hide, and help rejuvenate the area.
Credit Sean Hurley

But not everything can be hidden. On the other side of the AT stands a ghostly forest of fire smooth, ebony trees.  “The second night this thing made a pretty good push,” he says, “it hooked around a little cliff area and really got a good run. Came up through here. You know these are Balsam Firs here. You know there's no needles left - this roared up through the tops of these trees.”  

The scorched earth in the dead forest is a black hard sponge – like walking on burnt toast.  But, Neely says, this will soon prove to be a boon of sorts.  “It's a good disturbance,” he says, “you know there's a lot of plant species like blueberries, grasses, sedges that are really tied to fire and respond really well to it. One thing that's kind of interesting about burns. This black burnt out area, next season when the sun hits is going to absorb heat better than the browner. It's going to warm up faster. It's going to give any seeds on the surface or in the duff a better chance to germinate.”

On the other side of the AT, a ghostly forest of fire smooth, ebony trees.
Credit Sean Hurley

But not a better chance for the Balsam Firs that once grew here.  “What I would expect to see coming back to this area are some of the pioneer species,” Neely says, “birches, paper birches, maybe Aspen.”

And if a good population of Aspen take root, Neely says the ruffed grouse population might go higher – it’s their kind of habitat.

Aspen and grouse regardless, as the pioneer trees begin to germinate and the burned ground goes from black to green, “You're probably going to see some insects move in,” Neely says, “you're going to see an increase in the birds - woodpeckers that are going to be feeding on those insects. And the browse for animals like moose and deer could be improved in the summer.”

I ask Neely about those moose and deer – and the snow hare that call – or called - this place home. “I walked through this fire quite a bit, the interior and the edges,” he says, “and I didn't see any dead animals. It built slowly and it wasn't like a huge all-encompassing event that would have captured animals in the middle and trapped them.”

The birds flew away, the moose and deer ran off – and the snow hare hid in the “talus” – rocky piles that accumulate at the base of cliffs.  The Dilly Fire did not disrupt, Neely says, so much as temporarily displace, the local animals. “I'd say you know in a year or so it will be hard - unless people are really looking - it will be hard for people to see. It will blend in pretty well,” he says.

Even years from now, Neely will still be able to see signs of the wildfire - even if we can't.
Credit Sean Hurley

But Neely will still see it.  “I mean I've been here since the mid 90s and I've been on a lot of the fires since then,” he tells me. “I can drive across this forest and look up on a hillside and still see evidence of a fire that I was on and say you know I remember that fire.”