Fire Ecology: How Does Fire Benefit Our Forest?

While growing up in Western New York there was no such thing as “fire season” and wildfires were far from anyone’s minds. After moving to the west I quickly learned that fire season is a very real thing and wildfires will always be a part of life here. While living here in Idaho it’s been easy to develop an interest in fire ecology and wildfire management. In the past couple of months fire has been a very popular topic at the visitor center and I have found myself answering a lot of questions on the subject. It has been interesting talking to people and hearing the various opinions on fire ecology and management practices. The more I’ve talked to visitors the more I’ve become interested fire ecology and I wanted to use this as an opportunity to share some of the things I have learned this summer.

Fire Ecology is defined as the study of wildland fire, its origins, and its relationship to the environment that surrounds it. Fire Ecology is a fairly recent branch of study, first making an appearance in the early 1900s when a group of researchers in the Southern United States challenged the idea that all wildland fire is bad. They argued that fire was not only beneficial to the forest but that it was essential to the trees, herbaceous plants and wildlife.  This early research revolutionized the way we understand and manage wildland fires.

Research has shown that smaller fires can remove underbrush, clear the forest floor of debris, open it up to sunlight, and nourish the soil. This reduces competition in the forest which in turn allows trees to grow stronger and healthier. This also allows for new species to grow in areas where they couldn’t before and can help make our forest more diverse. Historically forests had fewer trees but the trees that were there were stronger and healthier which allowed them to grow larger. Currently our forests often have more trees than we’ve seen in the past, but those trees are often stressed or diseased. Allowing smaller fires to burn can help create more dynamic forests with stronger healthier trees.

The SNRA is an example of a forest that has been hugely effected by disease. The effects of the Mountain Pine Beetle are obvious, dead trees can be seen scattered all over the forest floor. Looking around one can’t help but think about how quickly over forests could burn with the increased fuel load as a result of all those dead trees. Although a fire would be undoubtedly destructive in our area, fire can be beneficial in protecting forests from disease. Fires help clear out stressed and diseased trees as well as kill off the insects that prey on trees. This in turn will make the forest healthier for future generations.

Aside from having direct benefits for the trees in the forest fire also can have positive effects on wildlife. When fire burns heavy undergrowth it allows for new grasses, herbs, and shrubs to regenerate and provides food and habitat for many wildlife species. When heavy undergrowth is removed there is more water readily available because less plants are there to absorb it. This can cause streams to be fuller benefiting other plants and animals.

Although fire is an unquestionably destructive force it is also an incredibly important part of maintaining a healthy forest. Forest landscapes are dynamic and can change in response to disturbances, often creating healthier landscapes as a result. We want to avoid fires that burn vast areas of our forest, as these larger fires will typically be more destructive and make it harder for the forest to recover. Allowing smaller natural fires to burn, or using prescribed burns in areas to reduce fuel load can help prevent those larger fires in the future and allow for the benefits of fire to occur.

Prior to the mid-1900s the main management practice was to completely suppress all wildfire. After decades of suppressing fires, fuels, such as dead trees, leaf litter and shrubs built up to an unnatural level in our forests. All this suppression led to bigger fires because of the increased fuel load and in turn the bigger fires became harder to fight and caused more destruction to the land. With increased research and understanding of forest ecology our management practices have drastically changed and improved.

When managing a wildland fire there are many things to consider, first off firefighters take into account how the fire was started and what kind of things are located nearby. Typically if a fire is started naturally (ex. Lightning strikes) it will be allowed to burn unless it is in an area close to buildings, homes, people or valuable natural resources.  Allowing natural fires to burn will help reduce fuel loads in the forest and hopefully help make future fires less intense. It will also allow for those benefits of fire to occur.  If a fire is caused by human actions it will typically be fought early and quickly if possible. With any fire a main concern is the safety of the crew fighting the fire. If the fire is too large or too dangerous to fight it will be closely monitored until actions can be made to continue fighting it.  A huge part of fighting fire is also understanding fire behavior, including ways that the fire spreads and how weather effects fire. Management practices are constantly changing with our increased knowledge of how fire effects the forest and wildlife.

This post is meant to be a general overview of forest ecology and wildfire management and by no means covers everything. If you’re interested in learning more about the subject, especially in national forests check out the US Forest Service Website Their website has a ton of information and is a wonderful resource to learn more about wildland fire.

– Claire Mann, Naturalist