When not a threat to human life, wildfires alter the natural landscape in a variety of ways, according to Dr. Mihuc.
Fire in A Us Park Service Woodland
“Wildfires are regenerative for the forest, rejuvenating for the watershed, renew the soil, and reset the clock for the environment when they are permitted to burn in regions where they do not interfere with human development. Let me list the several advantages of natural wildfire as a researcher on wildfire and streams.
Many types of woods, such as lodgepole pine forests, eucalyptus forests, and pine barrens, cannot survive without regular wildfires. Because the trees in the forest evolved to only produce seeds after a significant fire event, these forests need canopy fires to rejuvenate. Because of this, forest fires can be regenerative, and without them, many of these forest kinds would disappear from the landscape.
How Does a Fire Rejuvenate the Watershed?
It revitalizes in a variety of ways, such as the distribution of plants that can withstand fire, the recycling of nutrients, the expansion of fish food sources (such as mayflies) in streams, and more. Not to mention soil chemistry renewal, which is essential to the forest and watershed. (I have a bias because I have researched streams and wildfires since the Yellowstone wildfires in 1988.) Through publication after publication, science supports the possibility that natural wildfires can be beneficial.
The ecosystem is effectively “reset,” allowing it to flourish once more for another 200 years. By the way, a stand-burning fire, like the one that burned over Yellowstone in 1988, also creates a patchwork mosaic of younger forest patches on the landscape, which acts to contain the spread of subsequent flames. Future wildfires are extremely likely to get bigger and bigger without this mosaic of younger forests, which can put a huge inferno out of commission.
Bottom line: To avoid more severe catastrophic fire events in the future, we might need today’s natural flames on our forested terrain. After more than 50 years of fire control, the lesson was learned in Yellowstone in 1988, a year of calamitous large-scale burns.
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Cleaning the Forest Floor
Fire removes the low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight, and nourishes the soil. Reducing this competition for nutrients allows established trees to grow stronger and healthier. History teaches us that hundreds of years ago forests had fewer, yet larger, healthier trees. Forests today have more trees than in the past, but they are not as large or healthy.
Established trees have to compete with undergrowth for nutrients and space. Fire clears the weaker trees and debris and returns health to the forest. Clearing brush from the forest floor with low-intensity flames can help prevent large damaging wildfires that spread out of control and completely destroy forests.
Under optimum conditions, when wildfires do start, the result is a low-intensity fire that remains on the ground burning grasses and vegetation but causing less damage to trees.
Wildlands provide habitat and shelter to forest animals and birds. Fire clears wildlands of heavy brush, leaving room for new grasses, herbs, and regenerated shrubs that provide food and habitat for many wildlife species. When fire removes a thick stand of shrubs, the water supply is increased. With fewer plants absorbing water, streams are fuller, benefiting other types of plants and animals.
Fire kills diseases and insects that prey on trees and provides valuable nutrients that enrich the soil. More trees die each year from insect infestation and disease than from fire. Many forests struggle against diseases such as pitch canker and bark beetle infestations – pests that destroy the part of the tree that delivers nutrients to the roots, leaves, and needles. Fire kills pests and keeps the forest healthy. Vegetation that is burned for fire provides a rich source of nutrients that nourish the remaining trees.
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Change is important to a healthy forest. Some species of trees and plants are actually dependent. They must have fire every 3-25 years in order for life to continue. Some trees have fire-resistant bark and cones that require heat to open and release seeds for regeneration. Chaparral plants, including manzanita, chamise, and scrub oak, also require intense heat for seed germination. These plants actually encourage fire by having leaves that are covered with flammable resins. Without free, these trees and plants would eventually succumb to old age with no new generations to carry on
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