On December 4, 2017, a fire started at around 6:30 pm in Santa Barbara County, California. Unbeknownst to the residents of California, that small bush fire would turn into the largest wildfire in the state of California, ever. Burning over 281,893 acres, the Thomas fire ripped through southern California for over a month before it was finally 100% contained. It destroyed 1,063 structures and damaged 280 structures, (CalFireMap).
Although wildfires with such massive destruction don't happen often, they do happen. In 2017, Montana lost over one million acres (1,032,801 to be exact) to wildfires, where over 900,000 were burned due to fires started by lightning, (WorldNow).
As of January 10, wildfires consumed 9.7 million acres in the United States alone in 2017 (WildFireToday).
With that being said, the argument of whether wildfires are good or bad is still at large; how could anyone consider a natural disaster as bad as a wildfire to be a good thing? Well, statistics can answer that question for us.
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), there are many benefits of fire. "It is one of our greatest tools and one of our most destructive forces," (CalFire). Fires actually clean the forest floor, provide better habitat for animals, kills disease and promotes new generations of plants and animals.
How does it do that?
Cleaning the Forest Floor
"Fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight, and nourishes the soil. Reducing this competition for nutrients allows established trees to grow stronger and healthier," (CalFire). History suggests that centuries ago our forests had fewer, but larger and healthier trees than we have in our forests today. Older trees now have to compete with smaller vegetation for nutrients and space. Fires clear the weaker trees and debris, which helps the health of the forest.
Prescribed burns can help prevent out of control wildfires.
"Clearing brush from the forest floor with low-intensity flames can help prevent large damaging wildfires that spread out of control and completely destroy forests. Under optimum conditions, when wildfires do start, the result is a low-intensity fire that remains on the ground burning grasses and vegetation, but causing less damage to trees," (CalFire).
"Wildlands provide habitat and shelter to forest animals and birds. Fire clears wildlands of heavy brush, leaving room for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs that provide food and habitat for many wildlife species. When fire removes a thick stand of shrubs, the water supply is increased. With fewer plants absorbing water, streams are fuller, benefiting other types of plants and animals," (CalFire).
When fires burn through forests, it can actually kill diseases and insects that destroy trees. "More trees die each year from insect infestation and disease than from fire. Many forests struggle against diseases such as pitch canker and bark beetle infestations – pests that destroy the part of the tree that delivers nutrients to the roots, leaves, and needles," (CalFire). When vegetation is burned by a fire, the breakdown of the brush at high temperatures actually provides a rich source of nutrients to the soil that nourishes the remaining trees.
"Change is important to a healthy forest. Some species of trees and plants are actually fire-dependent. They must have fire every 3-25 years in order for life to continue. Some trees have fire-resistant bark and cones that require heat to open and release seeds for regeneration. Chaparral plants, including manzanita, chamise, and scrub oak, also require intense heat for seed germination. These plants actually encourage fire by having leaves that are covered with flammable resins. Without fire, these trees and plants would eventually succumb to old age with no new generations to carry on their legacy," (CalFire).
So, are wildfires good or bad?
Like anything else, moderation is key. Wildfires when necessary and in moderation are vital to the health and survival of our forests. Some things to remember:
–Fire suppression can result in longer fire return intervals and increases in the amount of fuel available for the next fire.
–Fuel treatments: mechanical and prescribed fire.
–Changes in the vegetation: non-native species, insects, disease, (CalFire)
Stay tuned for the sequel to this blog, "How Does Land Recover After a Wildfire."
Let's get to growing,
Cal Fire. (n.d.). Benefits of Fire. Retrieved February 9, 2018, from http://www.fire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/fact_sheets/TheBenefitsofFire.pdf
California, S. O. (n.d.). California Statewide Fire Map. Retrieved February 09, 2018, from http://cdfdata.fire.ca.gov/incidents/incidents_details_info?incident_id=1922
News, M. (2017, September 06). Montana's 2017 fire season tops 1 million acres burned. Retrieved February 09, 2018, from http://cordilleramontana.worldnow.com/story/36306110/montanas-2017-fire-season-tops-1-million-acres-burned
Gabbert, A. B. (n.d.). Statistics Archives. Retrieved February 09, 2018, from http://wildfiretoday.com/tag/statistics/