Forest fires (wildfires) are extremely misunderstood natural events. Frequently wildfires that cannot be controlled are referred to as ‘natural disasters’. However, wildfires are absolutely necessary to maintain ecological integrity of many ecosystems. Wildfires can be dangerous when they approach areas where people live, but suppressing wildfires is environmentally harmful for a variety of reasons.
Wildfires occur naturally, as a result of normal environmental processes in healthy ecosystems. Wildlife and vegetation in areas that frequently experience wildfires are adapted to fires and benefit from fire. In these ecosystems, fire replenishes and rejuvenates the landscape. The fire returns nutrients to the soil and allows variety of new plants and species to regrow healthily. Conversely, preventing and suppressing wildfires causes a buildup of materials that prevent new plants from growing and stifle the ecosystem.
Wildfires may appear to be extremely destructive events and are terrifying for homeowners. However, their destructive power is an important and necessary force of nature. First, wildfires expose mineral-rich soils and return the nutrients from plants back to the earth. After a fire, new small plants use these newly rich soils to grow extremely quickly. These new plants are ideal food sources for wildlife. Progressively, larger and larger plants and trees take over the burned habitats, taking advantage of the fire-cleared area. Eventually large, old trees take over the area and minimize the amount of smaller vegetation that can grow on the ground. These trees shed their leaves which build up on the forest floor continually increasing the chance of a fire starting. Eventually a random occurrence like a lightning strike restarts this process.
Unfortunately, wildfire management over the last century has focused on large-scale suppression of wildfires. This means that ecosystems in need of fire haven’t been allowed to undergo the natural, cyclical, processes that aid ecoligcal regrowth and revitalization. Increased fire suppression also means that when fires occur, they become larger, spread faster and are more difficult to control. Fire suppression may be necessary at times, but it postpones and increases the inevitable risk, cost and delays the critical environmental revitalization process.
Smokey Bear will tell you, “only you can prevent wildfires!” Unfortunately, he’s wrong. Yes, you don’t want to start a forest fire by leaving your campfire unattended or by leaving smoldering cigarette ends in the forest. However, this is mainly because of the danger fire poses to urban landscapes and the related fire management and suppression costs. You can avoid being at fault for wildfires, but no one can prevent all wildfires and no one should want to!
There are some important steps you can take for wildfire preparation. The first is learning about wildfire regimes. Understanding the difference between a wildfire that promotes ecological health and a wildfire that threatens urban sprawl is essential. Wildfires that threaten homes can be prevented. Homes can be made of fire resistant materials and flammable debris on the wildland-urban interface can be cleared. The most important aspect of natural hazard prevention and harm mitigation is information and knowledge.
Daniel, Carroll, Moseley, & Raish (2007). People, fire and forests: A synthesis of wildfire social science
DellaSala, Williams, Williams, & Franklin (2004). Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: A synthesis of fire policy and science.
Kimmins (2004) Forest Ecology: A Foundation for Sustainable Forest Management and Environmental Ethics in Forestry, Third Edition
Barbour & Burk (1999). Terrestrial Plant Ecology.