How Can Forest Fires Be Helpful For Ecosystems?
By Kim DeGracia- Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 37 seconds
Goodbye, November 2020! As November comes to an end, we’re also saying goodbye to wildfire season in the United States and Canada.
Wildfire season occurs each year from August to November. While wildfire season is ending, this doesn’t mean that we’re safe. Wildfires can still happen; the risk of them occurring is just lowered.
Wildfires: Uncontrolled fires that burn in wildland vegetation.
Wildfires burn in rural areas like forests, grasslands, and savannas. When you think of forest fires, what’s one word that comes to mind?
Destruction has a negative tone to it. When something is destroyed, it no longer exists.
But what if destruction can actually be a good thing for forests?
Let’s explore how forest fires can be helpful for Earth’s ecosystems!
How Can Forest Fires Be a Good Thing?
When news stations report on forest fires, you see headlines with the words:
These negative verbs describe forest fires because fires impact humans. In the United States, over 1 million fires occur every year leading to thousands of deaths and injuries. People are left homeless after their houses are destroyed.
Fires are catastrophic for humans.
However, fires can be a good thing for forest ecosystems.
Fires and Our Past
Our ancestors used hunting and gathering for food. They relied on lightning strikes for fires to cook food, provide light, and to keep warm. These controlled fires were important for our ancestors to live.
Scientists who study trees can determine the forest’s age by looking at a tree trunk’s rings. They can determine if a forest fire happened from the trunk of the tree too. Frequent fires happened after tens of years.
But our society’s view of fire changed in the 1900s.
In the early 1900s, fire in forest management became an intense debate topic. Southeast and western landowners used fire to remove dead plant debris. Living plants could then thrive in better conditions. Contrary to landowners, most professional foresters refused to use fire.
The professional foresters saw fire as a deathly threat to small trees. They wanted them to grow and mature. Wildfire prevention also led to campaigns like Smokey Bear.
Smokey Bear helped humans understand that they can cause fires. Fires can endanger thousands of human lives and homes. Yet Smokey Bear doesn’t talk about the benefits of natural fires and controlled fires.
Over 100 years of fire suppression have gone by with that: Hello, imbalanced forest ecosystems!
How do fires balance nature’s ecosystems?
Imagine that you’re flying over the Columbia River Gorge. It’s a canyon that borders the states of Oregon and Washington. You’ll likely see a sea of green, dense conifer trees standing majestically.
It’s a beautiful sight.
You snap a few pictures.
Yet did you know that dense conifer trees may not equal a healthy ecosystem below them?
Imagine this: An environment without forest fires.
The tall conifers form an umbrella for the forest floor. Species below the trees can’t access the sunlight. Plants on the forest’s floor can’t get sunlight and nutrients. They suffer and eventually die. The forest floor is now full of dead debris that serves as fuel for fire. When fire does burn through the forest, it will be more intense.
Hundreds of years ago, forests were full of fewer but healthier trees. The trees didn’t need to compete with other plants for nutrients. Today, tall trees aren’t as healthy and need to compete with other plants for space and nutrients.
Forest fires help to clear forests and dead debris. This allows new plants to grow. Some plants also rely on fire to grow.
For example, conifers produce annual and serotinous cones. Serotinous cones have an outer covering. The covering needs to reach fire temperatures to open and release their seeds. If fires don’t occur, serotinous trees can’t grow. They will be outnumbered by other trees.
If there are no serotinous trees, forest species that rely on the trees will disappear. The forests’ ecosystems are imbalanced. This is because a conifer’s cone couldn’t release its seeds. Manzanita, chamise, and scrub oak plants also need heat for seed germination.
Now picture this: A forest after a controlled fire.
Fires will burn down tall trees and leave behind snags. Snags are standing, dying, or dead trees that are missing their top and smaller branches. They occur due to disease, old age, drought, or forest fires.
Plants that need heat for seed germination will release their seeds during a fire. Wind can carry the seeds to other areas.
The tall trees are no longer stealing sunlight from the plant species beneath them. Now the seeds are nourished with sunlight and rain. The plants also don’t need to compete with as many trees for nutrients. Flowers also begin to germinate.
Some insects like Melanophila acuminata beetles have receptors that can detect when a fire occurs. They are attracted to heat because they lay their eggs in the snags.
Beetles’ larvae are found in trees. The mountain bluebirds, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Lazuli Buntings rely on larvae for food. Black-backed Woodpeckers make holes in the snags to reach their meal. Other species can make their home in the tree holes now.
Mammals and other animals make a home in the once fire-filled ecosystem. Predators are also introduced because their food sources live in this environment. Biodiversity is restored, and the ecosystem is thriving! Tens of years will go by until this natural process of fires will occur again.
Does building a house in the forest hurt balanced ecosystems?
The Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is an area where humans built communities that are in areas prone to wildfires. The United States WUI grew from 1990 to 2010: the number of houses in the area increased by 41%. One in three homes are now in the WUI. This number is continuing to grow as more people want to live in and close to nature.
But this can cause problems.
Fires are naturally occurring events. We need fires to have balanced forest ecosystems.
But houses and communities are in areas that need to burn. Since we can’t have communities burning and lives lost, fire suppression continues.
As the cycle continues, no forest fires hurt the once balanced ecosystems.
Now, we’re not suggesting that everyone leaves the WUI. But it’s important to be aware that your home may be in an area that centuries ago burned.
How can you join in with nature to contribute to balanced ecosystems?
You want to help nature thrive and contribute to balanced ecosystems yet you’re not sure how to. Here are ways that you can join in nature so that our forests’ ecosystems will be thriving.
Sign up for Ocean Blue Project’s email newsletter. Follow our social media platforms.
Ocean Blue Project works with governments to ensure wildlife and humans can coexist. OBP can keep you informed on our projects in the local community and see how you can get involved!
Self-educate yourself by reading scientific literature and books, as well as by listening to podcasts and lectures.
Many times we’re quick to believe everything that we see and read. It’s important to self-educate ourselves on environmental issues! This way we can make informed decisions on our lifestyles. Wildfires may have a negative connotation in the news. Now we know that some ecosystems need fires to stay balanced and thrive.
Eliminate single-use plastics from your lifestyle.
We want to enjoy the benefits nature brings to our lives. But when humans leave plastic debris in forests, oceans, rivers, and streams, they provide flammable materials that can intensify fires. By eliminating single-use plastics, you can help contribute to balanced ecosystems.
Make Ocean Blue Project your Amazon Smile donation recipient.
Making Ocean Blue Project your Amazon Smile donation recipient will allow purchases you are already planning to make to have a positive impact on the environment. It’s pretty simple really. Go into your account and change the settings. Then each time you make qualifying purchases on Amazon, they donate a portion of their profits to Ocean Blue Project. It takes moments to make this one-time change in your settings, and then it’s on autopilot.
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Author Bio: Kim DeGracia is a scientific writer and clean-water advocate based in the Washington D.C.-Maryland area. She is a postdoctoral researcher at a firefighter research institute studying how fires impact our environment.