Oregon, USA — In August of 1996, a major fire raged through tens of thousands of acres on Malheur and Umatilla National Forests in eastern Oregon. This was the Summit and Tower Fire, which started from summer lightning.
Although the results of the fire seemed devastating, many patches of green vegetation and live trees remained. And in time, many plants seeded or sprouted anew and species of wildlife took advantage of the new conditions.
One such species is the American kestrel.
During summer 2005 I explored the area of the Summit and Tower Fire — nine years after the big burn — and I have never seen a greater density of kestrels.
They had moved into the area (a “functional response”) to nest in natural snag cavities created by the fire, and were apparently feeding on many invertebrates and other small animals whose populations had bloomed following the fire. Thus, the food chain was re-established, with kestrels being one of the top predators. In fact, in the early years following a forest fire, nest predators may be absent or depressed, allowing kestrels to flourish.
It is unfortunate how the media reports forest fires as if they are always harmful — although risks to people and their habitations are authentic concerns, and decades of fire suppression and fuels buildup may now be causing unnaturally catastrophic fires such as this one. Still, there are many important and positive ecological effects of natural fire, particularly in fire-adapted forests and fire-evolved ecosystems such as these.