The Early Misconceptions
While wildfires can cause significant damage and destruction, there are several benefits to these fires occurring. Even with added benefits to the ecosystem and society, they are often secondary sights to individuals not trained in respect to this topic. Fire, devastation, and loss of life are often the common fear associated with wildfires. In 2020 alone, $3.3 Billion were handed out by the NIFC, or National Interagency Fire Center, for wildfire recovery actions. However, these fires are paramount to playing an important roll in the lifecycle of forests and the environment. Each of the subtopics that will be examined within this blog are important to understand because of the interconnectivity of impacts. Wildfires have benefits that span from the environment, society, and future restoration and growth habits. Although it is more common to visualize devastation and comprehend the numerical values of losses, there is also a mindset that needs to be understood of wildfire benefits and progression.
Climatological Benefits of Wildfires
The changing climate and variable wildfire seasons have created several dangers for towns and cities across the country. However, along with the overall benefits of a wildfire, there are a few positive climatological impacts that need to be addressed. Firstly, vegetation type is a key player as to the benefits of preventing and minimalizing wildfires. For example, Eastern Red Cedar is a highly flammable tree. Although far from the best choice to plant in a fire prone forest, it does illustrate the reasoning and decisions of planting certain vegetation types across different locations. Eastern Red Cedar burns quickly and evenly, with several natural oils embedded within the bark and root systems. However, using native plants, such as trees and shrubs of different sizes, will minimalize burning based upon their adapted structures. These structured plants are often tall, towering trees that can’t be removed easily. After the age of 25 years, these trees have the ability to grow nearly 30 feet tall. They provide significant shade and overlapping canopies near other trees. These wildlife destinations often provide strong wind screens, increasing stability and safety to residential structures. However, prescribed burns that are controlled are plausible options to reduce fuel, but also sustain a well integrated forest. In 2009, there were 32 prescribed burn associations located across six western states. These organizations collaborated together with shared resources and man power to create an environmentally and economically friendly landscape. This specific cedar is also unfriendly to wildlife habitats. With different growth styles of vegetation across forested lands, similar fire and growth cycles occur post wildfire regardless of the species of grassland or forested grounds. This cycle includes the remaining dead vegetation, actively growing vegetation, and natural elements of soil, moisture, and wind driven seeding.
Although it is a commonly thought that all trees are equal in habitat resources, this is untrue. The Eastern Red Cedar is not a supply of habitats. With reduced counts of turkeys, birds, and other critters, knowledge of the appropriate vegetation can aid biodiversity and increase the wildlife within the forest. Rainfall is another layer of complexity when choosing how prevent a wildfire. Eastern Red Cedar intercept only 40% of rainfall when accumulations are under 0.1″. The remaining 60% is soaked into the nearby soil layers. Although there are benefits to having these trees within the forest, it is important to understand the balance of high maintenance vegetation and drought tolerant plants. With the changing conditions and wide ranging characteristics of any given plant species, these variables have direct effects on the fuel that is provided for wildfires to burn and the future of wildfires in a changing climate.
Benefits of Wildfires
- Vegetation Growth
- Plant Control
- Structure Removal
- Lessening Fire Fuel
Vegetation growth is a significant, and often more common, benefit thought of when wildfires occur. During wildfires, shrubs, trees, and other brush and debris burn. This includes live and dead plant material in the tree canopy’s and buried on the forest floor. The fire not only burns the live plant material but also assists in seeding the forest for the next generation of species. These fires can break open cones and seeds, spreading them to other location within the forest floor. This process allows for redistribution of seeding and the increase in variety of trees and plants. Some species, such as Junipers, can take 20-40 years to filter an organic layer of material into the soil below the surface. When the fire burns this material away, the organic layer is brought to the surface and produces new plants, often native species. While reseeding the forests, this vegetation growth process can remove prior fallen trees, debris, and other items preventing new growth. While prescribe burns are often intended to add soil nutrients and freshen the landscape, it may only take a matter of months to rejuvenate the forest. However, larger fires, depending on the severity, take several years to adapt and replenish its pre-fire existence. Each of these items not only contribute to plant growth of future forests, but also the control of invasive species.
Plant control is an issue that can range from any location across the United States. However, it is quite common across the western states that commonly see the longest and most disruptive wildfire seasons annually. Invasive species, or plant species that have been transported to a new location for any determined reason, often overtake native and endangered plants. These invasive species often spread quickly, such as vine perennials or large shrubs. Each of these plant species can be minimalized with the aid of wildfires. Although a burned mixture of native plants and invasive species, this relocation of new plants creates several issues for the wildlife such as new insects and animal habitats, potentially deadly plant funguses and diseases, and additional fuel to burn in the event of a wildfire ignition. It may appear to be a harmless plant within a much larger forest. However, use the comparison of a bear or large animal in a small pet shelter where damager and destruction are inevitable. It is recommended to use a mix of plants including a few annuals when replanting the forest floors. Native plants are likely to culminate with a similar climate to create stronger plant control and resistance to invasive species.
Although several of the prior benefits of wildfires have been ecologically based, there is one true benefit that can take place in being the removal of old and abandoned structures. Even with the damage left behind in piles of rubble, wildfires save money on the local budget and prevent potentially unavailable resources from being requested for demolition. The fires also allow the monetary aspect, as well as resources requested, to be used to fight the wildfires or used in a more appropriate action. Often, these buildings and structures can be found within the forest itself, or on the outskirts of the neighboring town to the fire’s location. These structures are quite commonly cheaper than a downtown skyscraper and are minimally used or upkept resulting in a relatively small loss compared to what traditionally could be removed without firefighting actions or mitigation.
Lessening Fire Fuel
In last week’s blog, fuel required for fire ignition was addressed. Wildfires derive their strength from those few individual requirements. However, they also burn away additional fuels that are needed for future fires. Many of these fuels are found of the floor of the forest, although still standing trees may play an equal role in this equation. Most of the fuels that are burned away are dead plants and tree debris, potential trash left behind by hikers or campers, or even rotted tree stumps that are prime for ignition. Natural variables such as wind speed and direction, low humidity, drought and hot conditions can’t be avoided. However, even with these variables still in play, the absence of the fuel for fire creates a much lower potential for a large, spreading wildfire to occur. While examining the recovery effort, the average 10′ by 10′ burned region requires 435 new trees to be planted. This cyclical nature will continue the process of clearing old fuels from the region, while adding new and explosive growth in its place. The video below is a great explanation of the overall ecological benefits of wildfires and how they have the ability to preserve our natural forests, with respect to the burning of the forest floor and other fuels.
In summary, wildfires are not entirely troublesome to society or the environment. The most common reactions to wildfires are that the negative consequences are solely harmful such as devastation, victims, and horrific memories. However, to ever negative side of a situation brings a positive attribute. Wildfires are a saving grace to the forest when ignited and contained correctly. Over the future decades, it would be significantly beneficial to have hundreds or thousands of small, productive fires rather than a few ecosystem altering blazes. The mindset of all fires are harmful is an issue that must be addressed with awareness and preventative trainings. Wildfires have several secretive benefits to the forests themselves, but also the species that reside within these regions.
Looking Ahead: The Dangers of Wildfires
With several underestimated benefits of wildfires now being spoken about, the next blog will present and illustrate a few key issues that wildfires bring. These interactions can be environmentally related, health related, economically driven, or simply outdated polices. Although there are many benefits of wildfires that we’ve discussed, the negatives often quantifiably outweigh the positives. However, that does not indicate that wildfires are negative biased. In the next blog addition, a review of the negative aspects of wildfires and their impacts related to our daily lives will be examined in detail based upon environmental, human, and economical impacts.
Climate and Wildfires
Block, W. M., L. M. Conner, P. A. Brewer, P. Ford, J. Haufler, A. Litt,
R. E. Masters, L. R. Mitchell and J. Park. 2016. Effects of Prescribed Fire on Wildlife and
Wildlife Habitat in Selected Ecosystems of North America. The Wildlife Society Technical
Review 16-01. The Wildlife Society, Bethesda, Maryland, USA. 69 pp
January 2006 what can landowners do to manage. Management After Wildfire. (2006, January). Retrieved February 24, 2022, from https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/files/288120.pdf
TOMASO, J. O. S. E. P. H. D. I., BROOKS, M. A. T. T. H. E. W. L., ALLEN, E. D. I. T. H. B., & MINNICH, R. A. L. P. H. (2006). Use of fire – california invasive plant council. Retrieved February 11, 2022, from https://www.cal-ipc.org/docs/ip/management/UseofFire.pdf
What are the benefits of fire?: Oklahoma Forestry Services. What are the Benefits of Fire? | Oklahoma Forestry Services. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2022, from https://forestry.ok.gov/rxfire-benefits