This was an especially awful year for forest fires in the western North America. Both British Columbia and California were ablaze most of the late summer and into September before firefighters were finally able to get the flames under control.
Still, there is a misconception that all forest fires are inherently bad. While it’s certainly true that fires the size of those in California this year are best avoided, natural forest fires that are smaller in scope often play an important role in shaping ecosystems for years to come.
Here’s a brief overview of some examples of how life springs out of forest fires—even ones that are especially intense.
Forests regenerate over time
Not only will forests regenerate after they burn, but in some cases, they also grow and spread. There are some types of trees and shrubs that harbor seeds and spores that can only be spread and germinated through fire. Consider, for example, the jack pine of the northern United States and Canada.
In other cases, some types of trees have fire- and drought-resistant seedlings that will survive even after the parent tree has been burned down.
One study published in Functional Ecology focused on the effects of fire and drought on white oak seedlings in southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest. The White Oak is considered a drought-tolerant species, and researchers wanted to see how its seeds would hold up to these particular stressors. What they found was that fire would actually help some young trees withstand drought by removing some leaves and branches, and that fire makes the stress of drought worse by creating warmer, drier conditions in the local area, making nitrogen less available to those young trees.
There are other circumstances in which fires can help preserve forests, even if they cause a significant amount of damage. Jasper National Park, for example, recently saw an infestation of mountain pine beetles, which infected almost half of the pine trees in the park. Researchers believe that a past practice of extinguishing wildfires in the park made the forest grow thicker, which made the infestation spread faster as well.
Had the fires continued to burn, it would have done a significant amount to reduce the spread of the beetle and curb the infestation, possibly saving thousands of trees. Therefore, many researchers are now of the opinion that forest fires should be allowed to burn, unless properties or lives are at risk.
Forest fires can certainly be tragic, and those experienced recently in British Columbia are horrific. But they are not always negative for the environment or the forests they affect. For more information, contact Soil Advocates at firstname.lastname@example.org or 289-221-0164 and we’ll be happy to tell you more about what happens after the fires stop burning.