Now that forest fires have abated here in the Pacific Northwest, though still moving through the landscape in Northern California, I would like to separate the wildfire stories appearing constantly in the news this summer, remove the true human impacts of smoke ash, to focus on fire as one of the most natural of forces on our planet.
If you love huckleberries, then you will thank fire, for this quintessential fruit depends on fire to not be crowded out by tall conifers. Many tribes in Oregon and Washington annually set fires to keep prairies and berry fields open. Before returning to the river valleys for the winter, Yakama Nation women fired the subalpine meadows to prevent growth of trees. Intentional burning also increased zones of productivity for deer and elk, while providing pasture for horses.
If you like lodgepole pine forests, you will recognize fire’s role in perpetuating this noble tree. When lodgepole pines grow, especially in areas that are prone to forest fires, their cones are tightly sealed. A layer of resin and woody tissue sticks the cones’ scales together. The seeds are locked in tight, and the cones can’t open unless they’re exposed to high temperatures–the type of temperatures that fire provides. Lodgepole pines are famous for colonizing post fire landscapes. Their seeds love the carbon rich soil that fire leaves behind, and seedlings pop up immediately. They grow into new stands of trees, and before you know it, there’s a whole new crop of serotinous cones waiting in anticipation for the next fire to blaze through.
If you’d like to see less destruction of ponderosa pine by disease agents such as the pine bark beetle, then you may appreciate the vital role of fire in limiting insect impacts. The beetles have currently decimated 45 million acres of forest in the Western United States in recent years, including 15 million acres of Forest Service land. Frequent fires once controlled the beetle populations until flame suppression became a forestry management hallmark. Although fire officials once believed the dead wood from beetle outbreaks increased the likelihood of out-of-control fires, a recent University of Colorado study found that bug-infested forests are no more likely to burn than other forests.
If you marvel at the sights and sounds of forest birds, then you may recognize how closely intertwined is the dance of fire and wildlife species. Burned trees provide habitat for nesting birds, homes for mammals and a nutrient base for new plants. When these trees decay, they return even more nutrients to the soil. Overall, fire is a catalyst for promoting biological diversity and healthy ecosystems. It fosters new plant growth and wildlife populations often expand as a result.
This past summer when heavy layers of smoke choked the Columbia Gorge lowlands, words like catastrophic, and end of the world littered the street talk, Facebook and other social media., Rather than viewing fire as the end of nature, I see it as a beginning, a wiping the slate clean as fire has done throughout our planet’s history; our challenge being maximizing fire’s benefit to the natural world, while limiting its mark on the human world. ~