“Catastrophic” wildfires

Every summer, we’ve come to expect nightly news reports of “catastrophic” wildlfires in the Western US.  News segments show trees blackened their entire height, with not an ounce of green left behind.  Some say this is unnatural, that it never happened during pre-European settlement times, and we should intervene – with thinning, logging, and fire suppression especially – to prevent these wildfires from happening.  I’ve always been very leery of those assumptions, because I believe (and science has shown time and again) that fire (even human-caused fire) is the driving force of all ecology for more than half of land-based ecosystems.  Without fires of any intensities, we wouldn’t have many of the plants and ecosystems we have today, especially our prairies and forests.  Plant and animal life begins and ends with fire ecology.

Firstly, who are we to say a wildfire is catastrophic within any ecosystem?  After all, we’ve only been on this Earth for a sand grain-speck of time compared to vegetation and fire.  If a fire kills a remote forest of Whitebark Pine (Pinus albicaulis) and changes it to a grassy opening, what’s wrong with that?  And I’m sure that’s not the first time something like that has happened.  Forests and grassland boundaries have always ebbed and flowed, sometimes violently so, in response to varying intensities of fire.  Diversity in plant communities across time and space is a very good thing.  It’s also natural.

Fire regimes are not the same across all forest types in North America, nor even the world (half of which requires fire to keep plant and animal life going).  This has been established in many research circles, but because of strangling conservative management decisions, and federal and state agency public service announcements that only tell the light version of the story, the truth of diversified fire regimes has been mostly left out.  Many forests do burn to the ground and it is normal for that to happen.  But the sugar coated environmental politics of the Smokey Bear generation still keeps the general public and many governmental agencies from advancing with ecology (disturbance ecology) and continuing to learn from Nature.

Secondly, it’s a classic case of “can’t see the forest for the trees”.  Just because what used to be forest is a stand of black sticks immediately following a stand replacement fire, many people don’t go back in the weeks, months, years, and decades to come and observe the spectacular vegetative recovery; especially the forb years.  Loggers argue the standing dead trees are “wasted” and must be cut down for lumber before the “bugs get ’em”.  Nothing is wasted on this Earth.  Everything gets used by something, especially in the end, because it’s a bug’s life.  Who is gonna clean up the mess when we’re gone?  Those bugs are attracted to fire-killed trees for that reason.  And besides, what’s the difference in a stand-replacement fire left to natural regeneration, versus a clearcut that is also left to natural regeneration?  Both are almost the same, but fire has the added bonus of a higer post-burn diversity than a clearcut.  Forest industry people tend to get stuck looking up all the time.  Looking down shows where true forest health lies.  I had the same problem when I went graduated forestry school and went to range management school – looking down was a big change for me.  But once I did, things clicked and I saw the diversity that we so often miss right under our feet.

Lastly, thinning, logging, prescribed burning, etc., do not prevent fires from occurring.  They could in some cases (so long as the timing is right), lessen the intensity of the next round of fires, but Nature is never fire-proof.  And it’s futile to think we can stop natural forces from powering those needed processes, especially in today’s world of unhealthy ecosystems degrading from one and a half centuries of fire suppression hangovers.

I have worked in the logging industry before as a timber faller, and in the forest industry as a hazard tree faller, so I can understand the concerns loggers have to stand replacement fires.  It’s an economic concern.  But in today’s near-extinct domestic timber market, all they have to do is look to the understory – the seedlings of the next generation’s timber is on the way.  Focusing on tomorrow makes us short-sighted and lose appreciation of the true long-haul scheme of things: Mother Nature knows what she’s doing all the time – even if you don’t agree nor understand.

Follow the science, even if the path is way different than what others take.  It is time we break out of our ecological comfort zones, especially removing the incorrect ideas and images that Smokey Bear and Bambi have so pervasively infiltrated into our popular culture and thinking, and accept the fact that Mother Nature can ferociously turn her crown jewels into a pile of smoking ash because that’s how nature works.  It’s from the ashes that new life will rise.

We need more fire, less suppression, and good ecology-based decisions, because all fires are good fires (except the ones that destroy property and human lives*), even if the immediate results aren’t all that aesthetically pleasing.  Nature is not about beauty – that’s an after affect – nature is about ecological functions and processes, first and foremost.

For further reading on this topic:

A New Forest Fire Paradigm: The Need for High-Severity Fires by Monica L. Bond, Rodney B. Siegel, Richard L. Hutto, Victoria A. Saab, and Stephen A. Shunk
Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness by Omer C. Stewart
Good Fire, Bad Fire: The Myth of the Mega Blaze by Brooks Hays
Mission Impossible by Jason Mark
The “Myth” of Catastrophic Wildfire: A New Ecological Paradigm of Forest Health by Chad Hanson, Ph.D.
Williams, M. A. and Baker, W. L. (2012), Spatially extensive reconstructions show variable-severity fire and heterogeneous structure in historical western United States dry forests. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 21: 1042–1052. doi: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2011.00750.x

Some key points to remember:
Diversity, both in how tree density is arranged across time and space, as well as burned areas and unburned areas within a forest is important.  Diversity in fire severity and occurrence is important as well.  These key points can also be applied to prairies, especially the tallgrass and mixed grass prairies.
And finally, fire severity is more related to weather conditions than fuel loading – fuels complement weather conditions.  Weather, specifically high winds and low humidity, are the main drivers of wildlfires.

Note: Although I am a strong proponent of prescribed burning, I only advocate burning for training and research, and ecological reasons, such as burning in areas where “letting it burn” would not be safe, and for the many facets of ecological restoration.

*Homes and homeowners who live in the wildland urban interface (WUI) have to learn to live with fire.  After all, the do live within fire-dependent ecosystems.  More on WUI in another post.

Blast from the past - falling a hazard tree near a horseback trail at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma.  Photo by my dad.
Blast from the past – checking my gunning cut while falling a hazard tree near a horseback trail at Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. Photo by my dad.
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