Oxbow After The Fire

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The ashes have barely cooled from the fire that raced through the Oxbow Nature Study area in west Reno last Sunday, but planning for its recovery is already underway.

Even so, it will apparently be a long road back for the park. Oxbow was one of a kind when it opened back in 1991. It is a purely natural riparian area in an urban setting, a Truckee Meadows time capsule, looking pretty much as it must have when explorer John Fremont came through here 160 years ago. Visitors, including hundreds of school children each week, came here to experience nature.

Its 22 acres were home to a diversity of native greenery and animal life. It took a matter of an hour or two Sunday afternoon to lay waste to most of it. The cause is still under investigation, although we know the blame lies with humans.

The result is also being examined and the big question is where to go from here. "We're at the reaction phase," says Kim Toulouse of the Nevada Department of Wildlife. "What are we going to do? How are we going to do it? What do we need to do to help the park recover from the fire?"

That's the challenge and as he walks through Oxbow, Toulouse has to focus on the future. The present is a little painful. He was the first manager of Oxbow when it opened. "I still remember my first day walking through it and just saying 'Wow, this is just such a special place.' A hot summer day you could come back in here and take shelter from the heat and just shut off the urban area."

The impact on the wildlife here is easy to see, Redwing blackbirds and mallards are still seen in the pond. A red tail hawk still guards her nest high in a big cottonwood. Thousands of other nests were consumed. There's little sign of the mice, beaver and deer that called Oxbow home. A big concern is the towering cottonwoods. Some may survive singed. Others trees, a century or so old, did not.

The loss of the tree and brush is a big concern. Even greater is what might replace them--exotic invasive specials like white top and cheat grass. "We'll have to develop a strategy to keep them out to give the native species a chance to recover," says Toulouse.

But there is opportunity as well. The devastation has its own lessons to tell. "It's a huge opportunity," says NDOW Educator Aaron Keller, the man who now runs Oxbow day-to-day. "[It is] an opportunity to teach students about what happens when a fire comes through an area. What happens to wildlife and vegetation."

So, even heavily damaged, Oxbow will continue to teach. The park will reopen in stages in a matter of weeks. And then the work will begin. It's likely much of the community that enjoyed it will be encouraged to help bring it back.