Saturday, August 9, 2014

Forest Fires: Bad, or Good?

For my job in Colorado, I had a lot of interactions with freshman Forestry and Natural Resource Management majors. One of the most common group of questions I received are about forest fires. Are forest fires bad? Why do we let fires burn? Don't fires completely destroy an ecosystem? Why do they do prescribed burns; isn't that counter intuitive? Why aren't there any fires in the east? The questions are endless... and often misguided, innocent misconceptions.

Hillside that burned during the High Park Fires of 2012 in Colorado.
This fire was started naturally via lightning strike, but is considered the third most
destructive fire in state history, destroying close to 250 homes. Photo by: Matt Brincka

Fire ecology is fascinating. Living in Colorado, fire season it is just a way of life for much of the year. Signs of wildland and forest fires have been found in petrified wood and the earth's strata from around 350 million years ago, so in no way is it a man-made phenomenon. Once humans learned to control fire, it was used for clearing land for agriculture, communication long distances, to prep food, keep warm, and during times of conflict.

Fire Triangle
Fire, or combustion, needs three things to burn: oxygen, fuel, and heat. Missing an ingredient? No fire. Improper preparation of ingredients? No fire. Fire needs at least 16% oxygen to burn. Thankfully... our air is 21% oxygen, which not only allows us to survive through respiration, but it also provides us fire.

Before humans learned how to ignite a fire, it was naturally caused by lightning and lava. Now, roughly 90% of all wildland fires with the United States are caused by humans, leaving only 10% of fires being ignited by natural causes. Not all human made fires are ignited on purpose. Negligence is a major factor in wildland fire ignition, including leaving campfires unattended and the improper disposal of cigarettes. Other causes of wildland fire include arson and prescribed burns.

Hiking through the Fern Lake burn scare in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Notice the lack of vegetation on the ground, even two years after the 2012 fire. This
fire was started by an illegal, high elevation campfire. Photo by: Matt Brincka

Benefits of Fire
Many ecosystems require fire to survive as productive and sustainable habitats for wildlife. Fires that naturally occur in ecosystems burn quickly and at a low intensity. This low intensity fire destroys plants above ground, but below ground their root systems are still intact. Since fire during natural cycles can return nutrients to the soil, the root systems thrive and often produce new growth with a few weeks. This tender new growth is full of nutrients, making it prime grazing habitat for herbivores.

The hillside by Cub Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park was burned during the
Fern Lake Fire in 2012. Though it looks scared now, the hillside will go through succession
and return to a beautiful forest. Photo by: Matt Brincka

When fire is 100% suppressed and their is a lack of the natural fire cycle, the risk of catastrophic fires increase greatly. These are the fires many people see on the news; roaring flames that often result in the loss of property and human life. Fire suppression was a very common practice before we truly understood fire dependent habitat. During that suppression period, fuel - flammable material such as wood - slowly built up until what was normally an average fire turned into a high heat, high damage burn. We are talking heat so hot that it destroys the habitat completely, destroying below ground root systems, leaving a barren wasteland. These high burn, high damage fires are often the ones we see which destroy homes as well.... and can lead to much sorrow.

Today, wildland firefighters still suppress fire, but not to the extent that we use to. The main goal today is to allow the fire to burn as much as we possibly can without it damaging property and harming lives. All fires are handled on a case-by-case basis. If they think the fire will be a low burn, firefighters may let it run its course, but still keep an eye on it. If the fire looks like it can get out of control or do damage, that is when you'll see the calvary (planes, helicopters, hundreds of firefighters) storm in.

Prescribed Burns
Being humans, we didn't like the randomness of wildfires. We, as a species, don't like random. We like to now what is coming our way. We don't want to wait an guess on where and when the next fire will come. There are instances where fuel build-up naturally occurs, even without fire suppression. Like during the suppression era, this build-up of fuel can lead to intense burns that threaten property. To try and prevent this, and to keep a natural cycle within certain habitats, we will actual conduct a prescribed burn. These prescribed burns mimic those low-intensity, quick burning fires that happen naturally. Prescribed burns can be used for other management practices, such as the removal of invasive species, but we won't get into that in this blog.

Fire Prevention
One of the largest social marketing triumphs for fire prevention lays at the feet of Smokey Bear (not Smokey The Bear... don't believe me?). Smokey's famous "only you can prevent forest fires" resinates throughout much of the population. The goal behind it isn't to say that "all fires are bad." The message is saying that human generated forest fires are not natural and that it is important that we both understand fire and actively try to prevent human-made fires. Remember, 90% of forest fires in modern society are human generated... that is an absurd number.

Smokey Bear

National Fire Danger Rating System
The National Fire Danger Rating Systems helps you and I understand proper care practices that we can do to help prevent human-made fires under different conditions. The color coded system is broken down into five categories, including Green (low), Blue (moderate), Yellow (high), Orange (very high), and Red (extreme). To learn more about each category and what you can and cannot do during each ranking, go to the National Park Service website.

It is important to know the benefits and dangers of wildland fires. Not all fires are dangerous and not all fires are bad. Fire is a natural force that humans have a history of mismanaging. It is important to not rely on firefighters to put out our erroneous fires. We, as citizens, need to take it upon ourselves to help prevents man-made fires... so fire can at least partially transfer back to its natural, habitat enhancing state.

What Can You Do?: Put Out Your Campfire!The following procedure on how to put out your campfire comes from Smokey himself.

  1. Allow the wood to burn completely to ash, if possible.
  2. Pout lots of water on the fire, drown ALL embers, not just the red ones.
  3. Pout until hissing sound stops.
  4. Stir the campfire ashes and embers with a shovel.
  5. Scrape the sticks and logs to remove any embers.
  6. Stir and make sure everything is wet and they are cold to the touch.
  7. If you do not have water, use dirt. Mix enough dirt or sand with the embers. Continue adding and stirring until all material is cool. Remember: do NOT bury the fire as the fire will continue to smolder and could catch roots on fire. This will eventually get to the surface and start a wildfire.
Do us a favor... when you leave camp, don't leave a campfire still hot... and it better not still be burning.

No comments:

Post a Comment