Only YOU Can Promote Good Fire
Over the last several years we have seen the news report on the mega-wildfires in the western United States. Every year these fires seem to get bigger and more destructive. The loss to life, property and habitat of these mega-fires will have consequences that we will not fully understand for years to come.
These fires are not limited the western U.S., either. The Great Smoky Mountains wildfire of 2016 burned over 16,000 acres and changed the landscape there for many years to come. Florida, a state known for high humidity and swampland, also experienced the mega-fire phenomenon in 2017 with over 126,000 acres of habitat scorched by wildfires.
There are many reasons behind all of these large and destructive fires, but one factor – which may surprise you – remains consistent among all of these disasters: the lack of good fire.
Wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems across the U.S. These natural disturbance regimes help keep different factors within an ecosystem in check. Fires suppress shade-tolerant tree species and some non-native plants that could overtake and reduce biodiversity. The fires allow new trees to germinate by removing thatch and debris, which in turn causes the soil to warm faster and be more fertile.
One of the biggest factors that cause a mega-fire is the buildup of dead trees, branches, leaves and pine needles. These “fuels,” when burned, cause excessive heat that can kill the mature trees and allow the flames to spread into their canopies. This phenomenon is called “crown fire.”
In a healthy ecosystem, natural wildfires should be relatively small, moving slowly across the forest floor. Regular burning restricts the volatile accumulation of fuels that lead to the catastrophic fires that we are seeing today.
In the early years of the U.S. Forest Service, all wildfires were considered bad. The policy of rapid suppression of wildfires to protect new settlements, logging interests, ranchers and other development has led to the catastrophic fuels loads we are seeing today. This anti-fire culture is referred to by experts as “The Smokey The Bear Effect.”
Fire management and culture is starting to evolve in response to these catastrophic fires, though. In areas where a wildfire isn’t threatening infrastructure or public safety, it is now common practice to manage the fire rather than suppress it. This is done by creating control lines and fire breaks that essentially guide the fire in a safe direction and allow it to burn itself out. This reduces fuel loads, which in turn reduces the severity of any future wildfires in the area.
Another tool in a land manager’s toolbox is prescribed fire. This is the intentional burning of areas to achieve specific objectives. Goals of prescribed fire can vary greatly area to area. Objectives can include reduction of hazardous fuel accumulation, suppressing certain plant species while promoting others or creating better habitat for wildlife. These fires are conducted by trained professionals, under precise weather conditions, to achieve the specific goals that are outlined in the prescription for the area. Preparation of control lines and the ability to mitigate fire intensity through different firing techniques make prescribed fire one of the safest and most efficient options for managing natural areas. The U.S. Forest Service, National Parks and Great Parks of Hamilton County all utilize prescribed fire to manage natural areas.
In years to come, we are surely going to see more catastrophic wildfires in the U.S. The damage done by the anti-fire culture will not be abated overnight. We as a nation of people who value our natural areas so much must embrace prescribed fire as an essential part of the ecosystem. It should not be feared, but respected. Smokey the Bear had the best of intentions, but now it is our duty to act as advocates for returning fire to our world. Only YOU can promote good fire.
Chris Glassmeyer, Conservation & Parks Manager