Black spruce the bane of firefighters

Gnarled, stunted outcast of the plant world is called 'gasoline on a stick'

Posted: Monday, July 26, 2004

FAIRBANKS - Firefighters have a name for the black spruce tree, the scourge of Interior Alaska this summer.

"We call it gasoline on a stick," said Marc Lee, Fairbanks area forester for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

With nearly 4.1 million acres burned in wildfires this summer, the 2004 season is approaching second-worst status since record-keeping began in the 1950s.

Thank the little black spruce tree. Sure, the weather's been dry and there have been a lot of lightning strikes, but the spruce is ready to burn.

"It's an inevitability," Lee said.

Plentiful though it is, black spruce is the outcast of Alaska's plant world. Only the most ardent plant lovers see beauty in its gnarled, stunted form.

The species has no commercial value in Alaska and has been studied very little over the years, belittled for its ignoble qualities and economic insignificance.

Almost as if shunned by its peers, it seeks out the dark corners and low spots of the country. But like the protagonist in a Stephen King novel, the wallflower will eventually have revenge.

So it has been this summer, the lowly picea mariana stepping into the spotlight.

"It's a huge component of the landscape," said Scott Rupp, a University of Alaska professor. "And, as you can see, if you get the right conditions it can become the top tree in Alaska."

Glenn Juday knows as much about the black spruce as anybody. And the UAF professor sees a dark design in the evolutionary history of the black spruce.

The species seeks survival and success through the most dire of means, a scorched-earth policy meant to expand its borders.

The black spruce gets muscled out of nicer climes and festers in bogs and cold spots, gathering its strength. Two black spruce become four, four become eight and slowly the trees begin to take up larger sections of the countryside.

Usually, a stand sits on top of permafrost or very cold ground. This lowers the rate of decomposition in the soil, making nutrients scarce, and shortens the summer growing season. Often a black spruce that's decades old might look like Salvador Dali's version of a broomstick.

At the same time, the spruce drop needles and cones that clog the forest floor and are part of a layering process that helps the spruce put a tight squeeze on its patch of land.

By age 50 or so, a black spruce stand is becoming ripe for a burn and age increases the odds of fire.

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