Wildfires can be a scary thing. It’s a heavy subject, as wildfires can be powerful and devastating to land, animals, and people alike.
We’ve all seen the smoke from the recent fires hanging thick in the air. Making the sun look strange, making it harder to breathe, and maybe making your clothes smell like you’ve just finished an evening roasting marshmallows by the campfire.
Though wildfires can be harmful, they play a huge part in the natural cycle of the forest’s growth and replenishment! Here are some of the benefits a wildfire can have in an ecosystem:
- Wildfires can improve the health of a forest
- It can improve wildlife habitat
- For some special tree species, the heat of a fire will release seeds or encourage their growth
- And small fires can actually help prevent bigger ones!
Let’s break down some of those points:
Wildfires can improve the health of a forest:
Everything in the forest is lush with leaves in the summertime. When the canopy is at full growth and the sunlight barely gets past the leaf cover to reach the forest floor. Sometimes when the forest is so dense, there can be high levels of competition for sunlight among smaller plants. This is where fire can help.
- Fire can clear away dead trees, leaves, and competing vegetation from the forest floor, so new plants have space to grow
- It can break down and return nutrients to the soil
- Removes disease-ridden trees, leaving more space and nutrients for healthy trees
- Keeps treestands thin and open, letting more sunlight in so trees stay healthier
A small section of forest before and after a fire, an example of how a space can benefit from the clearing effects of a fire
Photo credit: University of California
Seeds that can only grow after a fire:
Yes, you read that right, there are some tree species that can only begin their growing process after a fire. These special species are called pyrophytes.
A pyrophyte is a plant that has adapted to be resistant to fire, or that needs fire in order to propagate (the process by which new plants begin the growing process). Some great examples of pyrophyte species are the Great Sequoias (with bark so thick it acts like a shield against the flames) and the Lodgepole Pine, as both species rely on the heat of a fire to burst open its pinecones and release their seeds!
Some species of trees like Jack Pine, which are found in the Biosphere, rely on fires to help them spread their seeds! Jack Pine cones are covered in a special kind of wax that keeps the seeds inside their cones. The fire can melt off the wax making it possible for the seeds to blow away and find a spot to grow.
Photo credit: Jack Pine Fruit – Photo by Paul Wray, Iowa State University
Small fires can help prevent big ones:
It may seem strange, but it’s true! Smaller fires are less dangerous, as they are often not hot enough to hurt well established living trees. Occasional small fires can be super helpful as they do a great job at removing dead logs and debris from the forest floor. This keeps it from building up to the point of there being enough fuel to fuel a bigger fire, which are the ones that burn incredibly hot. This is why smaller fires can help prevent bigger ones, and why smaller fires are so important to the natural health cycle of a forest!
This brings us on to the subject of controlled burning.
Photo credit: Cavan Alamy, National Geographic Society
The bigger fires are extra dangerous as they are more disastrous and can burn out of control. Sometimes professional firefighters will intentionally start a smaller fire (like we talked about earlier) to clear old debris to help prevent bigger, uncontrollable fires. This is known as controlled burning. This is something only done by trained professionals as it can be dangerous work! Fire must be handled with extreme caution.
Fire bans in our region are there to help these professionals keep fires handled, as things like campfires, fireworks, or even sparklers can start a forest fire when conditions are prime. So if you want to help out our firefighting friends and keep our forests safe from uncontrolled burns, listen to the fire bans and leave handling fires to the professionals.
And there you have it! Improved health of the forest, small fires preventing huge ones, seeds that can only be born of fire… these are the good things about wildfires!
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