Wildland fires and planet Earth have been close acquaintances since plants crept out of prehistoric oceans about 500 million years ago. But as plant life proliferated and diversified over millennia, so did fire. Though we might not think of fire as having different varieties and taxonomies, there are as many different types of fire as there are combustibles on which it feeds: A ground fire consumes organic soil, a surface fire moves through grass, forest litter, and shrubs, and a crown fire sticks to the wooded canopy. Any wildland fire may exhibit any combination of fire types, and any shift in weather or other variables may affect the qualities of the fire at any point in time—something that’s incredibly important to note when it comes to investigating an ecosystem’s adaptability to fire (though no organism can actually adapt to fire, just the patterns and rhythm of burning) and humans’ ability to successfully and mindfully combat its destructive forces.
The short story: fire ecology is a deep and rich area of study, one that—to grasp a full picture—requires a peripheral understanding of evolution, climate change, anthropology, technology, and the like. So, while this article will necessarily be limited in scope, the area of study is rich, valuable, and extremely engaging. There are nearly endless resources available for further investigation; this is a rudimentary sketch of fire ecology. Find a full list of sources at the bottom of this article for further and more in-depth reading.
In 2018, America has already seen nearly 7 million acres incinerated in over 45,000 wildfires. And as devastating as it appears in harrowing photographs and heartbreaking headlines, the news isn’t all bad. The full truth, though, is that there is still so much to learn about how wildland fire affects ecosystems.
What we do know, though, is that fire effectively reduces amounts of built-up fuel. This is perhaps the best-known benefit—more frequent, low-temperature fires clear brush and other organic buildup and reduce the chances of more destructive fires in the future. This, in turn, is excellent for clearing ecosystems of invasive species and removing undergrowth to give more native and sun-hogging plants a chance to grow. Plus, we’re not sure there’s anything more magical than wandering through a recovering hillside full of fireweed and morel mushrooms.
Likewise, the burnt matter releases carbon and other beneficial nutrients into the soil while removing old and dying trees to make room for younger, healthier trees to grow. But as varying factors converge to drive temperatures up and cause droughts to be more severe and wind more unpredictable, a fire that might have once been good for an ecosystem can rage out of control and cause more harm than good.
As mentioned earlier, plants have spent the past 500 million years slowly adapting to protect themselves from the destructiveness of wildfire. The thick bark of a conifer, the water-heavy leaves on some shrubs, and the subterranean biomass of prairie grass are just a few. Some plants even depend on smoke and heat to release or germinate seeds. But the contemporary fires raging through forests are burning with unprecedented heat, and consequently they are wreaking havoc on grasslands and forests that were once resilient to quick-burning fires.
When intense fires incinerate organic matter and rich soil—especially those that burn deep and hot enough to destroy well-established tree roots, it leaves hillsides dangerously prone to erosion and landslides. This, as with everything in nature, is not an isolated incident. Soil erosion within watersheds moves significantly more sediments downstream and into rivers, reservoirs, and lakes. Not only does this have an adverse effect on drinking water quality for the communities that depend on them, but there are widespread consequences when it comes to fish and wildlife habitat. It’s simply impossible to understand the full picture of the widespread effect.
Just as fires destroy invasive plants and insects, so do they clear away well-established native species and open up the possibility for them to return full-force and become established in previously uninfested areas. Likewise, with the removal of ground cover and other means of hiding, predators and scavenger species thrive while smaller species suffer the consequences.
While what emerges post-wildland fire can seem bleak, there are local and national organizations, crews, and research teams tirelessly dedicated to better understanding the new normal and what we can do to mitigate lasting effects and let the forests heal themselves.
The post-wildfire hot button conversation of the moment: selective logging.
Both sides of the aisle on this issue are loud and seriously heated (pun intended). On one hand, there is strong evidence that suggests the slash piles left after a salvage logging operation reduce the severity of the water-resistant layer of scorched soil left in a wildfire’s wake and thereby reduce the impact of erosion. There is, of course, the added benefit of deriving some economic benefit from an otherwise devastated landscape.
On the other hand, the bottom line is that there’s no conclusive evidence that says the harm salvage logging imparts on a recovering forest doesn’t outweigh the good. Changes in runoff and erosion end up influencing the speed of plant regrowth, allowing unlogged forests to recover faster than those opened up to salvage logging.
In the grand scheme of things, the salvage loggers and those who wish to bar the activity comprise a very small slice of the people working tirelessly to restore hiking trails, reopen historic highways, clean up highways, and learn as much as we possibly can about a post-fire ecosystem. These are the folks who are working to be better prepared for the next fire and to help implement policy change that will leave behind a healthier future for the next generation.
It's a simple fact that our generation and ones that are following close behind must come to terms with: human-caused climate change is warming the planet and has a hand in exacerbating fire season on all corners of the globe. While scientists nearly unanimously agree that no single event can be 100% attributed to a warming planet, there are serious factors at play like drier vegetation, more lightning (and more people, for that matter), and an extended fire season are just a few examples. But it’s not hopeless. There are many progressive, hardworking organizations that are doing everything within their power to slow climate change and combat its effects (shout out to 350.org, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, the The Nature Conservancy, and POW among others).
If there’s any major takeaway here, it’s that the issue of wildfires increasing in severity and destructiveness is one that’s rife with nuance, complexity, and wrapped up in political tape. It takes true dedication and reverence for the data and the scientifically-backed story to get a holistic picture. But it’s a labor oh-so worth doing—labor that will hopefully incite you to action, whether that’s with your local wildland firefighting crew, local legislation, or even a donation to an organization that’s doing great work.