It is easy to label wildfires as something to be feared. With their talent for displacing people from their homes, destroying previously lush landscapes into rubble, and creating toxic plumes of smoke, it is difficult to think of wildfires as anything but detrimental. After all, Smokey has been drilling the message into our heads for generations for a reason right? There is no ignoring the truth regarding wildfires and their destructive ability, however many people stop paying attention after they see the scorched stretches of land following a burn. What many people do not realize is that just because a forest looks dead does not mean that it is completely. What if there is actually good that comes from wildfires? What if burning could actually bring new life?
In truth, there is actually a deeper and more complex relationship in nature between the forest and its inhabitants during a fire. While trees and plant life may not be able to flee these blazes, many animals and ecosystems have developed methods of adaptation. Some birds even add to the fire’s mobility to help lure out prey. According to National Geographic, Ecologist Mazeika Sullivan of Ohio State University, Columbus goes so far to say that “Fire is a natural part of these landscapes”. In fact, many forests need fires to occur every so often to serve as a reset button; allowing creation of new and fertile soil and room for plants to grow without overpopulated root systems. The key is to realize that landscapes after a fire are not solely destroyed; they are simply changed.
To date, there has never been a recorded instance in which a wildfire has completely wiped out species that were living there prior. In fact certain species actually thrive in the scorched aftermath, such as the Black-backed woodpecker. Wood boring beetles and other burrowing insects are often drawn to areas of burn, thus creating a feast for the birds that fly back to them according to Audubon.org. New plant life is also stimulated post-burns as the soil in them contain high levels of carbon and nitrogen, creating a perfect ground for new plants to grow.
Certain plants only spread seeds after flames, and certain fungi will release spores after being stimulated by heat. Overall habitats are modified, not necessarily lost completely. With wildfires expected to become more prevalent with rising climate change, we may start seeing different species thrive over others. Patches of burn and unburnt areas allow for different species to mobilize, creating new and varying sub habitats than before according to Extension. Many times this is a change that may have been needed from years of anthropogenic fire suppression.
It may seem difficult to interpret a wildfire as anything but an unforgiving inferno, however, it is important to note that this has not always been the only perspective. For thousands of years cultures such as that of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders have actually contributed to fires rather than fight them.
Understanding that the land is theirs to work and look after, burning is a part of life and culture for them. Whether simply lighting fires to control underbush that prevent larger uncontrollable scale fires in the future, or lighting fires to attract animals to nutrient rich soil that comes afterward, to many different tribes fire is not something to fear. In fact, disrupting regular Aboriginal burn offs have even lead to the destruction of certain species such as the native cypress pine according to The Conversation.
After a wildfire takes place, burned areas often have the chance to start from scratch. Often fires take pests and plant/ tree diseases with them, allowing for a fresh and healthy start for new life. Pioneer plants such as grass and weeds allow for the spread of new growth, with trees and other shrubbery following suit. It also allows for humans the opportunity to take part in rebuilding and planting the forest. Ultimately, there is more to wildfires than one might think. There is no denying the concern that comes along with living in close proximity to forests prone to fires, however the aftermath of the forests themselves may not be as bleak as one thinks. They are a symbol of destruction, but also of ecological rebirth.
By Rachel Billard and Feija Bruinsma