Becoming Wildfire Smart – Part II

In our last episode, I mentioned that valley native Dale Swedburg spent much of his land and habitat management career with DFW studying fire. He speaks of how regular, naturally-occurring forest fires benefit the lands and the plant communities which evolved with them. On the other hand, the raging, super-hot and impossible-to-control megafires tearing through the overgrown forests we have created by preventing fires are rarely friends of nature – or people.

Dale is a strong proponent of prescribed burning, as a way of re-creating the natural periodic burns which most of the world’s forest ecosystems have known for millennia. And there are many fighting tooth and nail against controlled burns.

I thought we might first look at some of the benefits of historic fire regimes – those that erupt every few years, burn themselves out, and leave a healthy mosaic of naturally-treated and ready-to-burn forest land. Certainly you are aware of many of these, but there are myriad surprises in every forest ecosystem.

One of the first mentioned benefits of a fire is the removal of all those crowded trees and ground cover – fuels reduction, it is commonly called. The mechanical clearing of forests and cleanup of flammable ground cover will accomplish fuels reduction; the value of that is seen in the surge of communities and homeowners turning to Firewise Programs to protect families and properties. An obvious problem is that there is unlikely enough money on the planet to hire enough loggers to beat the buildup of fuels in our forests. A controlled burn is faster and cheaper, but that is only the beginning; fire does things no amount of mechanical clearing can do.

(By the way, none of this discussion about the use or value of fire argues against logging, and the value of our timber resources. Few would argue about the need for wood in most cultures around the world. What more and more pros are arguing is about the thinning of overstocked and crowded forests. A well-treated forest (from fire or logging) allows healthy timber to grow to harvestable size as part of a multi-age stand of trees in a more natural ecosystem.)

A forest fire at the right place and time reduces dangerous fuel loading, of course, but that is just a start. In forest ecosystems, fire: reduces insect pests and disease; removes non-native species which often crowd out natives; increases forage for game and other wildlife; recycles soil nutrients; supports the growth of the trees, wildflowers, shrubs and other plants which make up a healthy ecosystem; provides better habitat for threatened and endangered species of all types; and proper or prescribed fire limits numbers of super-hot megafires.

Any chance you get, talk with Dale, or any of the other proponents of regular, natural, fire (and controlled or prescribed burns). Each will have a dozen or more relatively unknown, ways that fire benefits the varied ecosystems which evolved with them. I can almost guarantee that you will be surprised by what you learn.

Think about charcoal left behind a fire. We use it for moisture and pest control in the bottom of flower and houseplant pots. In the woods, it has been shown to greatly retard the growth of knapweed – one of the most aggressive and noxious weeds in the West. Long-term, charcoal remains stable in soils, even in areas with generally poor soil producing conditions. (You may know about the “terra preta” – Portuguese for black soil – of the Amazon. Centuries of adding charcoal, bone, manure, and ash to those infertile soils created a soil maintaining nutrients and value to such an extent that there is an active black market for the soil.)

You have likely heard a number of times about how the heat from fires opens lodgepole pine cones and increases germination for a natural first-stage reforestation. Other seeds and roots react as well.

Smoke is the source of most human complaints about forest fires. Still, in the forest, a wide range of native plant species need smoke (often with heat) to properly germinate and grow. Buckbrush (Ceanothus) is a very important wildlife forage plant that becomes more vigorous with smoke and moderate heat – indeed, there is said to be evidence of buckbrush seed lying dormant in soil for two hundred years before germinating post-fire.

The Forest Service has a great site for finding research on fire effects on plants and various regimes. Check out What you learn will change your image among friends and all those present at your next party.

As you may have gathered, there are large groups opposed to the use of prescribed fire. For prescribed fire to become a truly major tool in the battle against megafires, cultural attitudes will have to be changed. If you want a sense of the challenges ahead of that change, I recommend the website of Citizens Against Polluted Air, at

Any of the fire pros will admit that smoke is the big problem – and insist that “no fire” is not an option for our future. Dale points out that cost, timing, size and intensity are generally known with prescribed fire – we can prepare. Is it better to have small expected fires or unpredictable megafires?

There will be fires. We have choices.


Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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