Smokey Bear may disagree, but there’s some truth to the fact that fire can benefit an ecological area. The Forest Service routinely conducts prescribed, or controlled, burns for just that reason. Whether caused by lightning, arson, accident or by design, forest fires are sometimes part of nature’s plan.
There are many reasons the Forest Service will conduct a prescribed burn in an area, and all of them are for the health of the forest and the ecosystem within it. Prescribed burns usually include the following features:
Firebreaks are planned strips of land that are cleared, either permanently or temporarily. A permanent firebreak is intended to give access to the inner parts of a forest to allow firefighters to fight a wildfire. Temporary firebreaks are created during a wildfire to prevent the progress of a fire, and to remove fuel that can cause a wildfire to spread.
Forage and Biomass Planting is another reason prescribed burns are done. They are used to clear land in order to establish plant species or varieties that are used for hay, pastures or biomass production.
Biomass are crops that can be used as a source of energy for biofuels. It’s a type of solar energy in the form of photosynthesis. This is a renewable form of energy that reduces our dependence on other sources of energy which are not easily renewable, such as fossil fuels.
Forest Stand Improvement is a process in which selected trees and undergrowth are burned to allow other tree species to flourish, and to become more resistant to fires in the future.
Prescribed burns also reduce the risk of a much larger, more intense and more destructive wildfire that would be difficult to control by reducing the amount of burnable fuel (undergrowth) accumulation.
Wildlife habitats are also improved by creating new ground cover and sources for food.
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The Benefits of a Fire
Looking only at a wildfire that has not caused property loss, or the loss of life, there are benefits to the health of a forest from a fire.
Survival of the fittest usually refers to wildlife, but trees are also a lifeform. When a forest is weakened by insect infestations, invasive weeds or disease, a fire will clear out damaged or dead trees caused by them. In a very generic sense, forest fires are almost a form of housekeeping.
New generations of trees are aided by the nutrients in decomposing plant life that a fire leaves behind. There are also some trees, such as the Jack pine and Sequoias, that need the extreme heat from a fire to release seeds and begin the process of germination.
Native species of plants are able to grow, adding to the health and variety of plant life in a forest.
More resources are available for the remaining trees and undergrowth. When a forest becomes overgrown with trees and underbrush, only the older and taller trees get the sunlight, and there’s competition among roots to get life-giving water. A fire clears out underbrush and some of the larger trees, which allows smaller and younger trees to thrive.
The new grass and plant life that grows after a fire becomes a fresh food source for animals.
A fire under optimal conditions, where there’s low temperatures and plenty of available moisture or standing water to limit the spread of the fire, don’t usually do a great deal of damage to a forest. Bark on a healthy tree acts like a coat of armor to protect the tender inside of the tree from disease, damaging bug infestations and fire.
In August of 2015, the third-largest wildfire in California’s history, the Rim Fire, destroyed 402 square miles of forest and grassland, including 77,000 acres of Yosemite National Park. In a majority of wildfires, the forests have been left to heal and recover on their own. An excellent example of this is the area surrounding Mount St. Helens. While not specifically a wildfire, the heat, ash and lava leveled much of the surrounding forest. In the 30+ years since the eruption, the forest has begun to recover as wildlife returns and new growth begins.
However, the Forest Service has made a decision regarding the Rim Fire that has many opponents crying foul. Not only have they proposed salvage logging and a hazardous tree removal to clear-cut almost 46,000 acres, but they’re also including trees measuring 30 inches in diameter. These larger trees were once off-limits as part of a policy to protect old-growth timber.
Vocal groups of ecologists in and out of the Forest Service have joined ranks with environmentalists to protest the clear-cutting. Their stand is that the fire was a necessary stage for the survival of the forest, and the Forest Service’s decision was based more on the value of the timber sold than on public safety. They insist that the clear-cut will be more catastrophic for the forest than the fire itself was.
No matter which side of the fence you stand on with respect to the politics of timber sales, one thing is certain: Wildfires have been a part of the forest life cycle since long before there was even a Forest Service to control and put them out. Like the phoenix, forests have risen from the ashes of each fire, wildlife has returned and flowers continued to bloom.