Other Voices: Rethinking our views toward forest fire
This year, as in every previous year, fires are occurring in the forests of the western United States. And, as in previous years, we read the predictable headlines about how many acres of forest were “destroyed” by wildland fires. Of course, when fires burn houses, this is a catastrophe, and we must redouble efforts to prevent this through programs to clear brush immediately adjacent to homes and encourage fire-resistant roofing and siding.
But the question remains: Does fire harm our forest ecosystems? Recent scientific evidence is providing answers that contradict many long-held assumptions.
For example, contrary to popular belief, there is far less fire in our forests now than there was historically. In the 19th century, prior to government fire suppression programs, the average annual area burned was eight to 10 times higher than it is now. Over the past few decades, fires have increased somewhat, but still remain well below their natural levels in western forests. Increasingly, forest managers are realizing that, despite increased spending on fire suppression, fires cannot be indefinitely kept at unnatural levels in ecosystems that are adapted to frequent burning.
Flames several stories high make dramatic and sensational images, and tend to be the focus of coverage on television, giving the public a skewed impression of how fires affect our forests. In fact, the majority of the area burned each year generally experiences low- or moderate-intensity effects in which flames slowly creep along the forest floor and most of the trees survive.
In the areas where most of the trees are killed by fire, scientists are making some of the most interesting and counter-intuitive discoveries. Far from being destroyed, these areas show some of the greatest rejuvenation and ecological richness. In such areas, natural conifer regeneration occurs, often with thousands of seedlings per acre after the fire. Some conifer species, in fact, require high-intensity fire in order to release their seeds and reproduce. These effects are perfectly natural in western forests. Historically, most of these conifer forests had mixed-severity effects. Some stands remained green and lightly burned while all trees were killed in others.
Moreover, some of the highest levels of biodiversity are found in the most heavily burned areas for both wildlife and plants. Many flowering plants and shrubs depend upon fire for germination and reproduction. Numerous flying insect species are attracted to these flowering plants following fire. In turn, many bird species depend upon these burned forests because they feed upon the insects. As odd as it may sound, a larger number of native wildlife species are found more in heavily burned forest – where most or all of the trees are killed – than in any other forest type.
Take the black-backed woodpecker, for example. This species is essentially restricted to large areas of fire-killed trees. It excavates a nest cavity in a dead tree and feeds upon the larvae of native bark beetles and wood-boring beetles in the standing dead trees. If fire is heavily suppressed, or if logging companies are allowed to cut down burned forests after fires, the black-backed woodpecker may disappear from a given area. Other species may follow.
After decades of fighting wildland fire, scientists and forest managers are coming to the conclusion that western forest ecosystems need fire to remain ecologically vital. They are also coming to the realization that fire is inevitable in these ecosystems.
We as a society must learn to adapt to wildland fire. Our homes will be safer and the forests will be healthier as a result.
Dr. Chad Hanson (firstname.lastname@example.org) has a Ph.D. in ecology from UC Davis, and conducts research on fire ecology. He is also the director of the John Muir Project, based in Cedar Ridge.
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