Forest fire

U.S.A.: Can we restore fire-adapted ecosystems after years of fire exclusion

(Society of American Foresters, 7 September 2001)

 Can We Restore Fire-adapted Ecosystems After Years of Fire Exclusion?
 Dale Wade, USFS Southern Research Station, Athens, GA     

From a conceptual standpoint the answer is an unequivocal “yes,” but from a practical standpoint my answer is only     an optimistic “maybe.” The root of the problem is that wildland fire and humans don’t mix well. We typically think we can exert our will to force natural processes to adhere to our desires, with the naïve notion that we can fix any  problems that arise. And it does appear that we can bend nature to some extent without deleterious consequences. Many ecosystems exhibit wide amplitude within which they are markedly resilient, but they do have limits. As our actions drive nature closer to one of these boundary conditions, it also appears that increasing natural forces are brought into play in an attempt to correct the imbalance. In the case of fire, this process plays out with increasing vigor as the period of fire exclusion increases. These pyrotechniques are spectacular from a distance, terrifying as one gets closer, and potentially fatal if humans are directly involved.     Before attempting to “nudge” an ecosystem process to fulfill a human desire, we should have a working knowledge of     that ecosystem; otherwise we don’t know how much latitude exists before approaching the boundary of natural resilience. Whenever we contemplate manipulating an ecosystem, we would do well to remember that it is more than just an assemblage of plants; it is a mosaic of the complex interactions and feedback loops between plants, animals and their environment (for an example see Landers and Wade 1994).     Society has finally come to the collective realization that the increased potential for catastrophic fire is related to fireexclusion and that the only realistic solution is to reduce fuel loads. We have the technical ability to accomplish the task whether by prescription fire, biological, mechanical or chemical means. We are just having trouble agreeing onwhich method(s) to use, how much of which fuels should be removed in which ecosystems, and in setting priorities.Congress has acted to prioritize the reduction of hazardous fuels across the nation by providing funds to do the job and to hire and train new fire managers to bolster our rapidly thinning cadre of experienced people, but numerous barriers remain. The reintroduction of fire is a complex and difficult process. Initial burns are hazardous (although not as hazardous as continued fire exclusion), and mistakes do occur. Organizations rarely have unlimited manpower and funding, nor do they ever have all the answers regarding potential fire effects, so burn managers must make do with the resources and knowledge at their disposal. Sometimes a pretreatment is necessary because the fuel complex is too dangerous to ignite as is. And there is always the potential of failure. Perhaps the biggest barrier, however, is that the full commitment of everyone in the chain of command is necessary. This is hard to come by in any large organization, whether public or private. It is much easier (and professionally safer) to advocate the benefits of fire but never have the     “right” conditions to light the match, than it is to shoulder the risks involved with authorizing or conducting a burn.     Although these risks decrease with multiple burns, they never disappear. And the law of averages is always at work.There are currently few incentives for doing the right thing, but many disincentives. If we are to succeed in this endeavor, I believe we must seize this brief window of opportunity to reach both the people directly involved, as well as the general public to dispel the lingering misconceptions regarding fire and convince them to focus on the ecological rather than political goals. Fire-adapted ecosystems are those whose species evolved in close association with fire and developed strategies over the millennia to cope with this natural force. By doing so, they are able to flourish within specific niches in that fire environment. It should be obvious that recurrent fire is necessary to embrace the full range of functions required to perpetuate fire-adapted ecosystems, but this is not a universally accepted fact. People can be grouped into three     broad categories on this issue, which I summarize as follows:          
1) This group believes humans have the ability to change the natural scheme of things and force nature into artificial roles where we reap only its bounty without having to cope with any deleterious side effects.This group is comprised of two subgroups:               
a) The first subgroup lives in a surreal world. To them, all fire is patently bad and any plant   communities that exist because of fire are aberrations that have no place in the natural               scheme of things – end of discussion! Readers who place themselves in this group but maintain they have an open mind, should obtain a copy of the dissertation by Jenniffer Robinson (1988).               
b) This subgroup thinks “fire-adapted” means that the community can survive in spite of, rather than because of, recurrent fire. Many in this group agree that the health of such ecosystems is failing, but blame it on the myriad of other human-caused changes that confound the issue. This group believes that fuel loads can be decreased and ecosystem health maintained by fire surrogates such as machines or chemicals. And fuel accumulations can certainly be reduced, but can fire-surrogates maintain the biological               integrity of these ecosystems? My experience leads me to believe only fire can stop, start,               accelerate, and decelerate the myriad ecosystem functions necessary for a fire-adapted ecosystem to perpetuate itself. Readers who place themselves in this subgroup should read the article by Wright and Heinselman (1973)          
2) The second group generally agrees with the necessity of fire in fire-adapted ecosystems, or at least has an open mind and is willing to condone the intentional use of fire unless it has an associated          temporary negative impact on them such as traffic detours due to smoke. We must convince this group          to endure such inconveniences for the greater good.          
3) The last group wholeheartedly embraces the necessity and inevitability of fire in fire-adapted   ecosystems. They realize fire exclusion is a prime reason many species are currently in trouble. This group needs to recognize that intentional fire is no panacea and can also be misused.     Ultimately it is the public who will decide whether fire is restored to fire-adapted ecosystems. Thus our work is cut out     for us. We all must be proactive in our outreach efforts to demonstrate to the public that prescribed fire is a sound     approach, and that we have the will and ability to use it in a safe and effective manner.     

Literature Cited

Landers, Larry; Dale Wade. 1994. Disturbance, persistence and diversity of the longleaf pine-bunchgrass ecosystem.     pp.182-188. In: Proc. of the 1993 SAF National Convention; 1993 November 7-10; Indianapolis, IN. Bethesda, MD:
Society of American Foresters. SAF publication 94-01.
Robinson, Jennifer M. 1988. The role of fire on earth: A review of the state of knowledge and a systems framework for
satellite and ground based observations. Boulder, CO: Cooperative Thesis No. 112, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara,
and National Center for Atmospheric Res. 476 pp. Dissertation.
Wright, H.E. and M.L. Heinselman. 1973. The ecological role of fire in natural conifer forests of western and northern North America. Quarternary Res. 3(3): 319-328



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