With the smoky skies looming over us for such an extended period of time this summer, we cannot ignore the visual impacts of fire. Without a doubt, fire can be and is destructive when unexpected or not well managed. However, in the midst of the smoke and haze, it does our souls good to think about what comes after the fire.
Fire is a natural component in nature and is important in many ecosystems. Ecosystems include living things like plants and animals, plus non-living things like rocks. Ecology is the study of how the living and non-living interact. Fire Ecology is the scientific discipline that investigates the natural processes and interactions involving fire and an ecosystem. Fire Ecologists give us good insights into the positive impacts of fire.
Like our closets, forests have a way of collecting clutter over time. Old logs, dense undergrowth, and fallen leaves tend to accumulate on forest floors. There may also be invasive weeds, insects, and disease in a forest. After a fire, this clutter is removed and broken down into important nutrients resulting in a rich forest floor soil that is ripe for microbial life and regrowth.
Fireweed in a burned section on the Seven Devils Loop in Idaho, 2019
Photo Credit: Brandolyn Thran
Sunlight is often blocked by the forest canopy, which may result in a shift in plant species over time. Nature is highly competitive, and shade intolerant plants cannot outcompete shade tolerant plants. After the fire, sunlight streams into the forest floor allowing shade intolerant species a chance to thrive once again. The inundation of sunlight is also helpful for saplings (young trees) to become established.
While we picture complete destruction in our minds, and it may appear so from first glance, fires usually do not wipe out a forest, but instead burn in a patchwork pattern. Naturally occurring moist spots become a source of resupply for seeds and a refuge for surviving animals.
Regrowth begins soon after a fire passes through an area. Fireweed quickly brings a beautiful sight of color back to the grey landscape. Wildflowers and other fast-germinating plants return first. Later, shoots regrow from stumps and stalks that were protected from the fire by bark or soil.
We can learn a lot from Fire Ecology and Fire Science (study of fire behavior). A well-managed burn with controlled temperatures may be a feasible approach to help reduce the risk of a more damaging and severe fires, in particular ecosystems. Mother Nature uses fire as a mechanism important in sustaining ecosystems, and human interference with that cycle may have impacts that are unexpected and monumental. That is why it is important to respect and not play with fire.
Like the song goes, there is a time for everything, and sometimes that means fire. It is hard to see the destruction in your beloved spot, but rest your mind and trust that Mother Nature will adapt and out of the ash life will emerge. Get outside and watch for the evidence of life in your favorite spot.