Many of us recall the US Forest Service billboards stating, “Only you can prevent forest fires”. That changed a couple decades ago when the forest service began promoting “Only you can prevent wildfires”. In the 1930’s, scientific study demonstrated the importance of periodic forest fires to promote healthier forest ecosystem niches, prevent the spread of devastating pestilence, thin forest, provide essential nutrients for tree growth, increase the tree growth rate, and enhance wildlife reproductive success, among other benefits.
Most Midwest forest fires are understory fires that burn near the ground rather than through the canopy. Canopy fires burn haphazardly and skip through the forest leaving a checkerboard appearance with unburned sections.
The 1988 Yellowstone crown fire that swept the park and national forest improved the forest health and its wildlife populations. Immediately, it left black desolated areas that were unpalatable for many that were taught forest fires are “bad”. They claimed the fire ruined the park. I hiked Yellowstone in 1996 where lodge pole pines dominate Yellowstone. The pine is a fire dependent species that reseeds itself with the aid of fire. Like local jack pines, lodge pole pines depend on fires to open areas to full sunlight and to release seeds.
In 1996, eight years after the fire, crowded young trees were three to six feet tall. They continue to struggle for light, space, and nutrients as they grow and self-thin the forest. I do not understand why the park service spent time and money replanting trees when the tree’s adaptation is fire adapted to reseed itself.
A couple reasons might be that efforts to prevent fires for decades caused ground duff to become thick and it burned hot destroying released seeds or bowing to political pressure to plant trees demonstrated humans were doing something. Some areas might not have had an adequate seed source to establish a forest rapidly.
When I fought fires at Bryce Canyon National Park in the 1970’s, the policy was to quickly extinguish them. Fires I fought were caused by lightning. We hiked to them carrying heavy loads of firefighting equipment on our backs. Fire breaks were built to contain fire spread and they were allowed to burn out. We camped by them as needed to prevent spreading. During later decades park policy changed to have “controlled burns” to provide healthier conditions for trees, wildlife, and people. It also helps prevent large uncontrollable fires.
We have seen news broadcasts that share the devastation of uncontrollable fires that sweep large areas. Frequent controlled burns during carefully selected times and weather conditions allow “safe” burning that does not burn homes, create conditions for deadly and destructive mudslides or cause massive wildlife destruction. It is important to call to get a burn permit from your township fire warden who will verify conditions are safe for you to burn brush. At Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, we cut and haul to a burn area or create wildlife brush piles.
During the Yellowstone fires, large animals like elk were frequently seen grazing in areas where fires jumped through the forest. Ungulates laid and chewed their cud. There were elk, bears, and many animals that did not escape flames and died. New regrowth, allowed remaining animals to have more successful reproduction with improved conditions of greater and more accessible food availability for grazing. Predators found more prey.
Human attitudes have been slowly changing during the past 90 years since we began to understand the valuable role of fire in ecosystems. Our knowledge remains inadequate. When to burn, how frequently, and how large an area to burn is different for survival of various species. What works well for plants might be too frequent for insect herbivores that support bird and mammal populations.
This same conundrum causes many people to reject what is known regarding the effects of climate change for our lives and health. Hopefully it will not require 90 years for us to embrace corrective actions. Studies indicate human carbon release increases climate change that increases fire frequency and intensity. Variables prevent complete understanding. “Only you can” support policies that shift us from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at firstname.lastname@example.org – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.