Our relationship with forest fire is complicated. Beginning in 1947, one of the world’s most recognizable characters and one of our nation’s most beloved spokesmen, Smokey Bear, told us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” (That slogan was changed to “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” in 2001.) For at least five decades, so in Smokey’s eyes, forest fires were naughty. Period. We should put them all out.
In the last two decades, however, we have been in a more nuanced time where we realize it some forest fires are good. Forest fires remove low-growing, heavy scrub, clear the forest floor of debris and open it to sunlight, which nourishes the soil. By reducing competition for nutrients, established trees can grow healthier and stronger; and provides space for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs. They in turn provide food and habitat for many animal species. And when fire removes a thick vegetation of shrubs, the water supply increases. With fewer plants absorbing water, streams are fuller, benefiting other types of animals and plants. Fire kills diseases and insects that prey on trees. More trees die each year from disease and insect infestation than from fire. And some species of trees and plants are dependent on fire. They must have fire every three to 25 years for their cones to open and release seeds for regeneration.
In fact, a recent study revealed that people who took a hike in a landscape both before and after the fire showed that they understand and appreciate the role of fire in natural surroundings, more than is typically perceived. While this may come as a surprise to you, here’s something really overwhelming: according to the World Economic Forum, forest fires can help combat climate change.
Seeing hope in the burns
In March 2020, the results of a study were published in International Journal of Wildland Fire revealed that many of us appreciate and understand the role of fire in natural landscapes – more of us than you would probably expect.
Between May 2016 and June 2017, researchers from the University of California, Davis, collected pre-hike responses and post-hike surveys from about 600 people who visited Stebbins Cold Canyon Nature Reserve, a protected area administered by the university. This was about a year after the Wragg fire burned the reserve on July 22, 2015 and swept through its face of chaparral and oak trees in northern California. The participants in the study were very familiar with the West’s history of firefighting and quite familiar with fire topics related to coniferous forests. But they were less knowledgeable about the history of the fire and its role in the shrubs and forests that dominate much of Northern California.
Before the hike, half of the respondents in the survey said they expected to see a ruined landscape. But after the hike, about a third returned amazed, energetic, and excited about the changes they saw. Among their comments were phrases such as: “This area is recovering itself.” “Terrifying.” “Nature always changes – sometimes now. Today I felt hopeful.”
However, there were finer points. While the positive responses were far more common than expected, most people had mixed views on the effects of the fire. For example, some remarked, “I know it’s good, but it’s sad when it’s out of control and people lose their homes,” or “I understand [it] must happen – but destructive! “
For the researchers, such caution was enlightening. They concluded that we do not give people enough credit to understand the positive and negative effects of fire, while having a hard time reconciling what they know about good fire in relation to what they see in the news or their personal experiences. .
In general, however, we are told that prescribed burns can benefit ecosystems and reduce the threat of catastrophic fires. After wandering around a place that has been burned, people can and often have largely positive experiences, engage in the after-effects and assess that it is surprisingly beautiful. Knowledge of these frequent reactions can be used as a tool in education and outreach work as places around us recover from wildfires.
Seeing future fires in GYE
It is predicted that in the future we will see larger and more forest fires. Climate change and rising temperatures will cause more drought, which may be a contributing factor to wildfires. Dry, hot and windy weather (which also creates a friendly environment for diseases and pests) combined with dried out, weakened and dead (thus more flammable) vegetation can increase the likelihood of large fires.
But now researchers are learning to use artificial intelligence (AI) to assess the long-term impact that an increased number of forest fires will have on forest ecosystems.
Use of complex simulation models, Researchers from the Technical University of Germany in Munich recently worked with American colleagues to determine how different climate scenarios could affect the frequency of forest fires in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) —who has the world-famous Yellowstone National Park in the heart – and which areas of the forest will not be able to regenerate successfully after a forest fire. Researchers found that by the end of this century, GYE forest cover would have disappeared in 28 to 59 percent of the region.
Particularly affected will be the forests in the subalpine zone near the tree line, where tree species are naturally less adapted to fire; and the areas on the Yellowstone Plateau where the relatively flat topography is mostly unable to stop a fire from spreading.
The rebuilding of forests in these places is threatened for several reasons: If the fires get bigger and the distance between the surviving trees also increases, too few seeds will penetrate the ground. If the climate gets warmer and drier, the vulnerable young trees will not survive; and if there are too many fires, the trees do not reach the age at which they themselves produce seeds.
This means that by 2100, the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem will have changed more than it has in the last 10,000 years, and will therefore look significantly different than it does today. Researchers say the loss of today’s forest vegetation is already leading to a reduction in the carbon stored in the ecosystem, and it will also have a profound impact on biodiversity and the recreational value of this iconic landscape.
The trends identified in this study are also intended to help visitors to the national park understand the consequences of climate change and the urgency of introducing data-driven climate protection measures.
To keep the good fires and banish the bad ones
Adopting such science-based approaches will certainly help prepare forests for the effects of future climate change. According to Jad Daley, President and CEO of American forests, the non-profit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and restoring endangered forest ecosystems, and distinguishing between good fires and bad fires will also be key.
Many forests evolved with fire. They need a certain amount of fire to clear undergrowth and release seeds from some coniferous cones. Unfortunately, climate change has dried up forests and left many wildfires. This combination leads to fires burning so intensely that nothing will grow again in many places unless we go back and recreate these areas once the fire is over.
Letting the good fires move through our forests when they occur naturally and creating “prescribed burns” – lighting small fires and dealing with them – will help restore forest density by clearing out smaller, younger trees to create space that prevents climate-driven super fires. At the same time, it will ensure that the trees that remain have enough water to survive and thrive.
Our fire-fighting approach must also develop and become climate-smart. Instead of laying out all fires, good fires from lightning and other natural causes should be allowed to clear forests to create healthy ecosystems with the ability to bounce back. And in the wake of these forest fires, we need to use science and AI-enabled tools to identify and embrace climate-resistant replanting instead of just replanting things as they were. For example, we could move trees accustomed to drier and warmer conditions from lower altitudes to higher altitudes to increase a forest’s chances of surviving climate change.
Reintroduction of wildlife eating the parts of shrubs and trees that are most likely to burn can also stop burns in their tracks.
walks in the woods
Some mistakenly conclude that the climate change-driven wildfire crisis means that forests cannot help in the fight against a warming world, as burnt forests release a lot of stored carbon into the atmosphere. But they can. Overall, our forests are still an overwhelming one network solution for the negative effects of climate change.
If in doubt, try walking in a forest after a fire has passed through it – when it’s safe. You can too find a new perspective and a hearth of hope.
Here is to find your true places and natural habitats,