Fire – Friend or Foe (Part 1)

A few days ago, I received a request to write a blog regarding a very sensitive subject – fire and the natural environment. The recent wildfires in California, and the associated loss of human life and personal property, makes such a task quite challenging. The 153,336-acre Camp Fire resulted in 85 fatalities, over 18,000 structures destroyed, and billions of dollars spent battling the infernos. This was the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history. Then came the heavy rains and predictable mudslides! Much has been said about this event and who is responsible, which makes the topic even more delicate.

Sad as it was, and still is for those affected by this travesty, the recent California fires are not the worst suffered in the United States. In 1871, a raging forest fire swept through Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and several surrounding communities, killing somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 residents, making it the single worst fire-related loss of human life in this country’s history. The exact count was never confirmed because all the records were burned. And just to keep things in perspective, that fire occurred 147 years ago. Then, in 1910, wildfires in Montana and Idaho scorched over 3 million acres; 86 people died in those fires. All of these situations had something in common; each occurred in periods of extreme drought and the flames were pushed by high winds.       

Fire requires three elements – fuel, heat, and oxygen. The chain reaction exists only when there is a presence of combustible materials, sufficient oxidizers, and temperatures high enough to create a flash point. And that is exactly what happened in California this year. Extreme drought conditions, coupled with high winds, set the stage for inevitable flash points ignited by lightning strikes, power line arcs, and arson. Wildfire has long been a part of the Golden State’s history. The difference now is human population growth and residential expansion into wooded, mountainous topography. There, trees, shrubs, and other vascular plants grow and protect the steep terrain from soil erosion during monsoons. Unfortunately, several years of drought have reduced the moisture content of the area’s plant material, making the countryside nothing short of a tinderbox.

Everyone is searching for answers on how such a disaster could have happened, who is at fault, and future prevention. Some have declared the California fire was the president’s fault, voicing opinion that he is responsible for the planet’s climate change. 

Before we examine the California situation, allow me to discuss a situation that occurred in my favorite getaway – Yellowstone National Park. Prior to the 1960s, most wildfires in Yellowstone’s 2.3 million acres had been suppressed, a management plan designed to protect the park’s esthetic value. What was obviously overlooked was the fact that fire had played a historic role in sustaining the area’s natural resources. In the American West, humidity levels are somewhat lower and annual rainfall considerably less, which means wood decays at a slower pace. In other words, trees die and resulting deadfalls stack up for the “hundred-year fires.” Over the decades, the amount of fuel drastically increased throughout the park’s forestlands. During the previous winter, snowpack was 25% of normal. Then, during the early summer months of 1988, drought conditions were perfect for wildfires. Frequent thunderstorms produced high winds, intense lightning, and no rain. By midsummer, fires were raging out of control. I know, I was there!

The Yellowstone fires of ‘88 burned throughout July, August, and September, destroyed 36% of the park’s vegetative cover, and forced officials to close the national park for the first time since it was created in 1872. No humans were killed within the park boundary as a result of the wildfires and wildlife losses were minimal. Ironically, nature corrected the park’s fire-mismanagement policies  with October snowfall.

The good news, plant life flourished in the burned areas. Much of the lodgepole pine forest lost had nearly eclipsed its 200-year maturity level. Plus, trees killed by infestations of mountain pine beetles were recycled, too. Regarding fire ecology, lodgepole pine cones are sealed tightly with resins to protect the seeds. Only extreme temperatures of fire can open these cones, which results in seeds falling to the carbon-enriched soil. This adaptive feature proves fire has long been an element of the natural environment. 

So what does this have to do with the California fires? For one thing, the planet’s overall climate is changing; mean temperatures are gradually increasing, which affects a wide range of life. Many such changes are tangible – like southern species of plants and animals expanding geographical ranges further northward. With shrinking ice-fields, the polar regions are experiencing the greatest visible change.

Yet, we must realize the face of Planet Earth has been altered many times since the beginning of time. All one has to do is look at our Southwestern deserts. Ages ago these arid regions were flourishing grasslands filled with animal life. Even the Mojave Desert that lies in parts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona was a flourishing savannah! This change, along with many others, occurred long before human occupation of North America and the clearing of trees and draining of wetlands for agricultural purposes, damming of rivers, water diversion to irrigate cities, croplands and gardens, and burning fossil fuels. For sure, 7 billion people residing on this planet affect its wellbeing. And in my humble opinion, every person who breathes air, drinks water, consumes food, drives a car, travels by air, and contributes bags of garbage to landfills is responsible in some degree. Even as a naturalist, I am no less guilty than those without a sense of responsibility. Added measures must be taken to protect parts of our natural environment and resource utilization continually studied and improved. Bickering and pointing the finger at people with different political opinions, however, does nothing to address the concern. 

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