On average, the United States experiences more than 100,000 wildfires per year. These fires move at approximately 14 miles an hour, and they burn an average of nine million acres of land. The raging flames and thick smoke of a wildfire consume everything in its path. Therefore it should be of no surprise that people associate wildfires with fear and destruction. While they can cause millions of dollars in damages and threaten the livelihood of those who are unfortunate to live near it, they also contribute to the health of ecosystems. Over time, forests have adapted to make wildfires beneficial and rejuvenating for the plants, watershed, and soil.
Many forest ecosystems, such as Pine Barrens, Eucalyptus, and Lodgepole pine forests, cannot thrive without wildfires. These types of trees produce seeds that have a resin sealing that prevents seed release. Resin only melts and releases the seeds in the presence of immense heat, such as that experienced in a wildfire. Without fires, these forests cannot regenerate, and the landscape will decline.
When fires ravage through the thick, dry underbrush and canopy, it clears the area of growth and allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor. Increased sunlight and less competition for resources, such as nutrients and water, allow for native seedlings to grow without the hindrance of invasive weeds.
Fires also clear a forested area of diseased trees and damaging insects, which allows the new seedlings to thrive with a decreased chance of disease.
Wildfires also rejuvenate the landscape and “reset the clock” so the ecosystem can thrive for another 200 years. When a fire burns a forest landscape, it rids the area of diseased trees and dead, dry foliage that acts as a major fuel source. When the area regrows, it will be filled with younger plants and trees that can withstand and prevent fires. This mosaic of young, healthy landscape can stop future wildfires in its tracks. We learned this lesson in 1988 when Yellowstone had a substantially increased amount of large-scale fires. However, we suppressed wildfires for more than 50 years leading up to the event, which only enhanced the flames in 1988.
For many animals, the plants and trees in the forest provide shelter and food. Therefore, animal diversity relies on healthy, thriving forests. Without natural wildfires, the forest grows unchecked and accumulates disease and dead foliage. An unhealthy ecosystem cannot support animal life. A 40-decade-long study at Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida found that, in areas with suppressed burning, the plant diversity dramatically decreased by 90%. The decrease in plant variety had a considerable impact on the wildlife living in the area. The number of animals significantly decreased, and one species of woodpeckers completely disappeared from the area.
Forest fires disinfect the area of dead trees, decaying plant matter, and disease. When the fires turn this unhealthy plant matter into ash, it releases nutrients back into the soil that would otherwise remain captive in old, dying vegetation. These nutrients help new seedlings to prosper and grow, which rejuvenates and replenishes the forest.
Similar to how wildfires help rejuvenate the soil, it also assists in revitalizing the watershed. Fires re-cycle nutrients and improve soil chemistry. They also replenish the food supply for many fish in lakes and stream by renewing the streamside vegetation and dispersal of fire-adapted plants.
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Resources: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/natural-disasters/wildfires/, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/12/ecosystems-could-once-bounce-back-wildfires-now-they-re-being-wiped-out-good, https://blog.suny.edu/2013/08/ask-an-expert-why-are-wildfires-good/, https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/how-forest-fire-benefit-living-things-2.htm
Picture Resources: Featured Image: https://pixabay.com/en/forest-fire-wildfire-blaze-smoke-2268725/, https://pixabay.com/en/tap-pine-cones-fir-tree-tree-3613709/, https://pixabay.com/en/wildlife-deer-mammal-young-animal-1367217/, https://pixabay.com/en/beautiful-wilderness-lake-stream-1851031/