Fires: Friend or Foe

forest fire1

Catastrophic wildfires are now frequent events in many places around the world. Currently, there are eight American states with active fires! Some blame global climate change, which causes longer fire seasons with hotter, drier conditions.  Others would argue that fire is a natural event. But perhaps biologist and land managers can do more to reduce the negative effects.

Prescribed burning is a controversial subject, but it is also an effective tool that can be used to prevent wildfires from becoming catastrophic. Prescribed burning is the careful use of fire to manage forested areas, which reduces hazardous fuels. Hazardous fuels include pine needles, hardwood leaves, fallen branches and herbaceous vegetation which make the forest more susceptible to fires. Large accumulations of these fuels lead to hot, damaging fires.  Prescribed burns also consume trees, shrubs, and invasive species that compete with other vegetation for moisture and nutrients.

Prescribed fires enhance vegetative growth and increase the diversity of plants within an area that are available to wildlife.  Generally speaking, low intensity fires are good for wildlife.  Several wildlife species are dependent on fire, such as: gopher tortoise, indigo snake, marsh rabbit, Florida panther, and the red cockaded woodpecker, just to name a few. These species thrive when their habitats are frequently burned.

forest fire2

Many species do not respond well to intense fires.  Some of California’s rarest animals and state listed endangered species are currently declining from the catastrophic wildfires that are going on at this time. Several fires across the western United States are destroying sage brush ecosystems that many animal species depend on. Regeneration of this habitat could take more than 120 years.

Over the years, there has been an increasing frequency of wildfires and money spent on putting them out or containing them. Since the 1990’s, fire suppression costs have exceeded what was budgeted by the Department of Interior every single year. In 1985, suppression costs were $239 million, with costs climbing to $1.74 billion by 2013. Since the 1970’s, dry weather has increased the length of fire season by two and a half months, further extending costs.

Without proactive forest management techniques, such as prescribed burning, the frequency of catastrophic wildfires will likely increase. Experts say that wildfires in the western United States will become more destructive in years to come.  The environmental and economic costs will only increase if preventative strategies remain unutilized. The age-old saying “fight fire with fire” still rings true. If more funds are used to manage forests, annual fire suppression costs should decrease. Biologists and forest managers can gain more control over wildfires by using prescribed burns, allowing them to implement better forest management.

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