Fire Ecology

I’ve been wanting to write about fire for a long time. It is an important component of a healthy ecosystem, and many people are completely unaware of the ecological benefits of setting the woods on fire.

Forest fires are a naturally occurring phenomenon. You go for a while without rain, everything dries up, then a storm comes through and lightning strikes a tree, boom: forest fire. It’s probably a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Long ago, fire would burn continuously across the landscape. As a result, many plants and animals adapted and now depend on fire to survive and propagate. The Native Americans weren’t stupid, they knew fire was important. They burned to clear underbrush and to create land to hunt. Europeans, long removed from living in harmony with nature, then came along and changed America forever.

I grew up thinking forest fires were an evil, Bambi-killing destructive force. Forest fires will always have their casualties, but from death comes rebirth. Let me paint a picture for you… I’ve had the great fortune to participate on a few burns in a natural community called sandhill, which has two major components of longleaf pine trees and wiregrass, has incredible biodiversity, and also happens to globally imperiled. It is an upland habitat with well drained sandy soil and beautiful grasses and flowering plants. Gopher tortoises love it, deer love it, sherman’s fox squirrels love it, and butterflies and many other creatures love it. The gopher tortoises (a threatened species) eat the small leafy green plants that grow in sandhill, and the sherman’s fox squirrels (also a threatened species) like to eat the seeds of the longleaf pines. It is also important to note that sherman’s fox squirrels are super picky about their habitat and this contributes to their rarity. Red-cockaded woodpeckers are an endangered species that also depend on longleaf pines.

Now, what happens if sandhill doesn’t get burned? Oak trees will start to move in and underbrush will start to build up. This will shade out the ground and prevent the leafy plants and grasses from growing along with the longleaf pines. The gopher tortoises and fox squirrels will no longer have abundant food and will be left to find another place to live. The red-cockaded woodpeckers won’t have a home. The butterflies and insects that serve as food for other organisms won’t have food either, because the flowering plants will have been shaded out by the hardwood trees. Species after species is affected in the worst way, all because of a lack of fire. Bottom line: sandhill likes fire, it needs it. Longleaf pines have adapted to withstand the heat of fire, and plants need the open soil to germinate and grow. If sandhill goes too long without burning and the underbrush grows tall and thick, when fire actually does burn through it it will burn so hot and so intense, that even the longleaf pines can’t survive. It is also under these conditions that deadly and intense wildfires get out of control and threaten homes and other man-made structures.

Now, I have only highlighted one example of a habitat that needs fire. Most habitats and plant communities need fire at some point in time (see map below). Again, it is a very, VERY important component of a healthy ecosystem. Had I not had the wonderful opportunity of working with the Florida park service and learning of fire’s natural role, I would not be here to pass this information on to you readers. I hope I have changed your perception of fire, and even if you aren’t the type to care about the environment, you probably care about an out of control wild fire burning down your home. No matter what it is important that you understand that forests need fire.

Wildland fire in ecosystems

Wildland fire in ecosystems

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