People have always had a fear of fire. This force of nature can be destructive on human structures. Because of this we have tended to want to control and suppress it. Even when we’ve not lost any structures, a burnt forest is often seen negatively. However, is fire truly the villain we make it out to be?
Ecosystems need fire to remain healthy and balanced. Fire breaks down deadwood and organic litter on the forest floor then injects those nutrients back into the ecosystem to start anew. This vital cycle helps seeds in the soil to recolonize the area, while trees and other vegetation that survived the fire use these nutrients to boost growth.
Fire occurs naturally at different intervals in a healthy ecosystem. Dry environments understandably have fire more often then wet ones. Vegetation that naturally reside in these fire prone ecosystems have developed ways of protecting themselves. Trees like ponderosa pine and interior Douglas-fir have a fire-retardant bark to help protect them from the flames while species like lodgepole pine have serotinous cones. Serotinous cones use fire as a signal to open and release their seeds in order produce a new generation after the fire has passed.
It’s not only vegetation that benefits from fire; animals need fire just like ecosystems do. Fire clears out dense and overgrown vegetation to allow for easier movement through the bush. Following a fire, a stand blossoms with a lot of new vegetation and provides a great food source for deer and elk. Trees that have been killed by fire but remain standing become excellent trees for wildlife. These trees can be home to bats, squirrels, and many different species of birds, including owls. Trees that end up falling to the ground provide refuge for rodents and insects to take shelter in and for fungi to grow upon and decompose.
Without fire as an integral part of the ecosystem, forests would become unhealthy due to a build up of dead standing and or diseased trees, excessive accumulation of deadwood on the forest floor and an overgrown understory vegetation that inhibits ungulate passage.
Ecosystems without fire has caused a shift in the natural build up of dead wood and other fire fuels that, when we can’t put out the fire, will lead to unnaturally largescale, and very hot fires. These hotter and fiercer fires burn deep into the soil destroying the seedbank that is there to re-establishing the vegetation soon after the fire is out.
It takes a long time for a forest with damaged soil to recover from this event. These intense fires near residences also lead to a greater loss of property, similar to what happened in Kelowna just a few years ago.
We can do something about these out of control largescale fires though. Volunteer groups can conduct thinning of built up fuel debris on forest floors near our structures. Industry professionals can also conduct controlled burns which significantly helps to reduce the fuel buildup. Unless fires are allowed to return to their natural patterns forest fires will continue to burn out of control.
Next time we hear about a forest fire on the news we should all think about the broader benefits of its effects instead of wanting to snuff it out right away.
Devon Smith and Colby Dunphy are second-year recreation, fish and wildlife students at Castlegar’s Selkirk College campus