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Erjos ponds and forest fires in the Canary Islands
The natural world's survivors of the fire
In 2007, Tenerife in the Canary Islands was devastated by some terrible forest fires that began in Icod el Alto in the Los Realejos area of the north and then raged their way across the mountains to the west and south.
These wildfires took a terrible toll on the farmland and flora and fauna of the island and thousands of people had to be evacuated. But Mother Nature always has a safeguard for such disasters and I knew that there would be many survivors of the blaze.
Fire in Tenerife - Erjos photos
Survivors of the blaze
I went to Erjos nature reserve to investigate the situation there and was at first shocked by the scale of the damage with vegetation on both sides of the road displaying charred bushes and burnt trees, and with a coating of grey and black ash and embers on the ground. However, fire and water don't mix, as we all know, and the ponds of Erjos had withstood the raging inferno that had swept over the place.
I made my way down towards them past a farmhouse where a Dragon Tree (Dracaena drago) stood proudly and still alive amidst blackened bushes below and against a wall where all the stones stood out now that any vegetation had been burned away. The house was still OK too, as were some parts of its grounds where vegetables grew. This was something that happened in many places in Tenerife - whilst the fire destroyed all in its direct path, luckily some bits it missed.
Not so the areas ahead though, where all the brambles and other scrub had been reduced to ashes and charred remains and the smell of smoke was still strong. On the mountains above I witnessed the sharp contrast of the green forest on one side and the black and grey of where the fire had taken hold.
I walked onward pausing to notice that dragonflies were still hawking over the now very open ground. A Scarlet Darter (Crocothemis erythraea) landed on the path by me. Dragonflies are born-survivors that have been here since the days of the prehistoric swamps and it was reassuring to see they were still doing fine.
Birds, perhaps not surprisingly were survivors too, and in the air I could see several swifts. I also noticed Blackbirds (Turdus merula) and a small flock of finches scouting about in what was left of any vegetation. Overhead I heard the unmistakeable cry of a Buzzard (Buteo buteo), probably on the lookout for any lizards or rodents that had survived the fire.
Down at the main pond the reeds and rushes around the edges were mainly still green and Moorhens (Gallinula chloropus) were swimming and making typical Moorhen clicking and clucking sounds. Erjos has been known to have had several rare water birds sighted around the ponds in the past, but if any were still there after the fire they were definitely in hiding.
Another pond had dried up completely but that was nothing to do with the fire - it had clearly happened due to the hot summer weather. The cracked mud bore grim testimony to the baking heat.
St. John's Wort
Walking up a path I spied some Canary St John's Wort (Hypericum canariensis), which miraculously hadn't been burned. It was almost as if Saint John himself had been looking out for his herb.
St John's Wort is a remedy in herbal medicine to treat depression but here at Erjos it lifted my spirits by managing to have survived and to be blooming still with its sunny golden-yellow flowers.
Erjos normally is the home to many rabbits but all I could see that was left of them was their droppings on the path. Perhaps they managed to run away fast enough to escape the blaze - I like to hope so. In any case, there was nothing much left for them to eat now, just burnt offerings!
I wandered up the pathway towards the road. I could see some plants with seeds that would do well for the future in the ground that has been cleared by the blaze. A Carline Thistle (Carlina canariensis) had plenty in its spiky flower heads.
Towards the road there is a strange pillar of volcanic rock, almost like a natural obelisk, and with the undergrowth and bushes burned away it really stood out.
As I got back onto the road itself I could see lizards here and there along the top of the bank and at the bases of clumps of the Century Plant (Agave Americana). This tough succulent with its huge spiky leaves was one of the best survivors of all, and most were still alive and some were still in flower with the tall flower spike towering high above. The Century Plant is a non-endemic invader and now that it has so much open ground around it, it seems likely that it will take advantage of this by dropping its baby plantlets and colonising even more territory.
Gorse (Ulex europaeus) is another introduction to Tenerife that will withstand the fires and when it rejuvenates from the rootstock, as it can readily do, it too will probably take over a lot of new ground. It will certainly be fascinating to watch what arises like the Phoenix from the ashes.
Update (August): Erjos pools are now dried up due to the ongoing drought of 2012, and tragically the area has been ruined again in a forest fire that got out of control in August and that also destroyed much of the land around the woodlands. The vegetation that was still growing back where possible from the blaze in 2007 has just been burned again and it looks as if Mother Nature is fighting a losing battle there. It has been called an "ecological disaster."
Update (December 2012): We have had the usual autumn and winter rains and the ponds are full again.
First published in the Tenerife Sun, 2007
Where is Erjos?
© 2008 Steve Andrews