SciSun: Controlling the Burn   Leave a comment

Forest fires can be a disaster – trees burned, grasses and small plants consumed, homes of animals and sometimes people destroyed, and now-barren land further damaged by erosion and run-off. So, particularly within the past 50 years, the officials and organizations responsible for forest management have worked hard to keep natural environments fire-free, always working to ‘Prevent Forest Fires!’. And they’ve done a very good job, so the animals and trees and other plants and people living near the forests can be safe and sound. In fact, maybe they’ve done too good a job….

BlackBackWoodpecker USFS crop

“Fire roasting brings out the extra-grubby texture!”

A special type of bird, the Black-backed Woodpecker (Picoides arcticus), has lived millions of years by eating beetle larvae in trees that had recently been burned by forest fires (just like cooking on the grill, but without Dad wearing an embarrassing apron). Now that there are fewer forest fires, and the fires that do start are often controlled before they spread into the trees, the Woodpeckers are finding less to eat, fewer places to live, and scientists aren’t finding as many of the birds, or their nests or eggs, as they have in the past. It’s important that the birds eat all the beetle larvae they can find, because the bettles eat the trees and without the trees there’s no forest. This has become so serious that conservation groups have recently applied with the U.S. Interior Department to list Black-Back Woody as an Endangered Species in the Sierra Nevada region; Oregon’s Eastern Cascades; and the Black Hills of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota.

Fire is a natural condition and shouldn’t be labeled as good or bad just on its own. Fire can be harmful or beneficial depending on the situation and the final results. Much of the forest, for example – particularly pine forests – are fire-dependent ecosystems. This means the forest must endure fires from time to time to remain healthy. Certain pine cones and other seeds can only sprout if they live through the extreme temperatures created by a forest fire; fire clears out smaller, often harmful plants and often allows larger and established trees to live; some plants can only grow on the special soil that has been altered by a recent fire; and of course, our friend the Black-backed Woodpecker relies on fires for his dinner, along with other animals who can find food and opportunities in a newly-cleared forest floor. Of course, severe forest fires can also destroy large areas of woodland, leaving behind blackened spaces with little life, weakening the trees that remain and forcing animals to find other homes. And, fires can cause loss of life for animals and sometimes humans.

fireweed restablishes burn  USFWS

New growth restores the land

Like everything else in nature, the life of the forest is at times balanced on what humans might see as harsh, destructive or unfair. While we might not understand everything that happens in nature, scientists, researchers, environmental organizations and friends-of-the-forest are working hard to manage our natural environments so everyone can live and thrive; for explorers who want to enjoy a tree-filled campsite, or a woodpecker who’s looking for a larvae-lunch.

Get fired up and learn more about wildfires:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/fire/plants.html

http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/wildlandfire.htm

http://www.fao.org/DOCREP/004/Y3582E/y3582e08.htm

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