SunSpecial: Fueling the Flames   Leave a comment

Every year wildfires strike our public and private lands. National Forests; ranches; rural towns and National Parks are all vulnerable to fire damage; and while often a disaster to property, landscapes, and the homes of humans and animals, fire is a necessary part of forest and woodland environments, clearing the land of dense undergrowth and allowing stronger plants to succeed. Some seeds can’t even sprout and grow unless they’re first exposed to the high heat and chemical changes in the soil created by fire.

However, currently there are many fires raging in the west and among them the Rim Fire, in north-central California and into Yosemite National Park, may be one of the most severe and devastating infernosin the history of recorded wildfires. As of today, the fire has grown to over 222,000 acres; destroyed 11 houses and over 100 other buildings and structures; and displaced or killed thousands of wildlife. There are over 5000 firefighters and support team members battling the blaze; and the cost for fighting this conflagration is $55 million with continued work estimated into mid-September. Today the fire is only 40 percent contained, and is threatening irreplaceable groves of Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) – the largest, and among the oldest, trees in the world growing up to 300 feet or more, and living thousands of years. The fire line – a last-ditch (literally) attempt to dig and clear a wide area of all burnable material so the fire has nothing to consume – has just been established to protect the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, one of the main fresh water sources for the city of San Francisco.

Why did this fire, and other fires currently burning, get so out of control??? For almost 100 years the official Forest Service fire policy, as well as the polices of most state forestry departments, has been to battle, contain, and extinguish any fire of any size on public land – as well as helping fight and control fires on private lands that could spread to public forests. This was believed to help the forest as fire, certainly, is a bad thing and it could take only hours or days for an out-of-control blaze to destroy almost unlimited acres of woodland. Also, the lumber industry supported fighting all fires, as burnt trees can’t be cut down and made into building materials. So for decades all fires were contained and the forests continued to grow and overgrow – large trees, smaller trees, undergrowth, groundcover, all created dense and easily-combustible woodlands.

Fires this intense consume everything in their path

Fires this intense consume everything in their path

But fires that occur naturally actually clear this undergrowth and do minimal damage to large trees. Many species of pine and other evergreen trees have extra-thick bark to protect them from fire, which if occurring normally and at periodic intervals, has little undergrowth fuel and quickly passes by the larger trees. Animals can also move away or hide from low-intensity, usually semi-contained fires, which don’t create the concentrated heat or strong winds that are present in the mega-fires we’re seeing today. Native Americans sometimes created and managed fires for the purpose of clearing land of undergrowth, fallen branches, and other debris – using and controlling fire as a tool balanced with a healthy environment.

About 30 years ago scientists and researchers discovered the benefits of natural wildfires, and official policies have begun to change from fire suppression to fire management; but there are still people who believe the forest should be left as ‘wild’ as possible, and any fires that start should be immediately extinguished, even if fire is part of a healthy ecosystem. It’s better, they say, to preserve the scenic beauty, wildland-urban interface, and timber-producing forests than to allow controlled fires clear the land and the forest renew itself. Of course keeping all fire away from all woodlands can only last so long, before nature takes over and the ‘beautiful’ overgrown landscape of today becomes fuel for raging flames and the barren, scorched and blackened landscape of tomorrow. But the debate goes on between those who believe natural environmental processes should be allowed to create and maintain strong and healthy forests, verses others who favor aesthetics and economics. Over time, they’re just adding fuel, to the fire.

Posted September 1, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SunSpecial

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