Our relationship with forest fires is complicated. Beginning in 1947, one of the world’s most recognizable characters and one of our nation’s most beloved spokespeople, Smokey Bear, told us that “only you can prevent forest fires.” (That slogan was changed to “Only you can prevent wildfires” in 2001.) For at least five decades, then, in Smokey’s eyes, forest fires were bad. Period. We should put them all out.
For the past two decades, however, we’ve been in a more nuanced time, where we realize that some forest fires are good. Forest fires remove low-growing, heavy underbrush, cleaning the forest floor of debris and opening it up to sunlight, which nourishes the soil. Reducing the competition for nutrients allows established trees to grow healthier and stronger; and leaves room for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs to grow. They, in turn, provide food and habitat for many wildlife species. And when fire removes a thick stand of shrubs, the water supply is increased. With fewer plants absorbing water, streams are fuller, benefiting other types of animals and plants. Fire kills diseases and insects that prey on trees. More trees die each year from disease and insect infestation than from fire. And some species of trees and plants depend on fire. They must have fire every three to 25 years for their cones to open and release seeds for regeneration.
In fact, one recent study revealed that people who took a hike in a landscape both before and after it burned indicated that they understand and appreciate the role of fire in natural settings more than is typically perceived. While that might be surprising to you, here’s something that is truly mind-blowing: according to the World Economic Forum, forest wildfires could help combat climate change.
Seeing hope in the burns
In March 2020, the results of a survey published in the International Journal of Wildland Fire revealed that many of us appreciate and comprehend the role of fire in natural landscapes—more of us than you’d probably expect.
Between May 2016 and June 2017, researchers from University of California, Davis, gathered pre-hike and post-hike survey responses from about 600 people who visited the Stebbins Cold Canyon Natural Reserve, a protected area administered by the university. This was about a year after the Wragg Fire burned the reserve on July 22, 2015, sweeping through its expanse of chaparral and oak trees in Northern California. The survey participants were very familiar with the West’s history of fire suppression and fairly familiar with fire topics related to conifer forests. But they were less knowledgeable about fire’s history and role in the shrublands and woodlands that dominate much of Northern California.
Pre-hike, half of the survey respondents said that they expected to see a devastated landscape. But post-hike, roughly a third returned amazed, energized and excited about the changes that they saw. Among their comments were phrases such as: “This area is restoring itself.” “Awe-inspiring.” “Nature is always changing—sometimes sad. Today, I felt hopeful.”
There were finer points, however. While the positive responses were far more common than anticipated, most people held mixed views regarding the effects of the fire. For example, some noted that: “I know it’s good, but it’s sad when it’s out of control and people lose homes,” or “I understand [it] needs to happen—but devastating!”
For the researchers, such wariness was illuminating. They concluded that we don’t give people enough credit for understanding the positive and negative effects of fire while also having difficulty reconciling what they know about good fire versus what they see in the news or their personal experiences.
In general, though, we are getting the message that prescribed burns can benefit ecosystems and reduce the threat of catastrophic fires. After hiking in a place that has burned, people can and often do have largely positive experiences, engaging with the aftermath and assessing it to be surprisingly beautiful. Knowledge of these frequent reactions can be used as a tool in education and outreach, as places around us recover from wildfires.
Watching future fires in the GYE
It’s predicted that in the future, we’ll see bigger and more forest fires. Climate change and rising temperatures will cause more droughts, which can be a contributing factor to wildfires. Dry, hot and windy weather (which also creates a friendlier environment for diseases and pests) combined with dried out, weakened and dead (thus, more flammable) vegetation can increase the probability of large-scale fires.
Now, though, researchers are learning to employ artificial intelligence (AI) to estimate the long-term impact that an increased number of forest fires will have on forest ecosystems.
Using complex simulation models, researchers from Germany’s Technical University of Munich recently worked with American colleagues to determine how different climate scenarios could affect the frequency of forest fires in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE)—which has the world-famous Yellowstone National Park at its heart—and which areas of forest won’t be able to regenerate successfully following a forest fire. The scientists found that by the end of this century, forest coverage in the GYE will have disappeared in 28 to 59 percent of the region.
Particularly affected will be the forests in the subalpine zone near the tree line, where the tree species are naturally less adapted to fire; and the areas on the Yellowstone Plateau, where the relatively flat topography is mostly unable to stop a fire from spreading.
The regeneration of forests in these locations is at threat for several reasons: If the fires get bigger and the distances between the surviving trees also increase, too few seeds will make their way onto the ground. If the climate gets hotter and drier, the vulnerable young trees won’t survive; and if there are too many fires, the trees won’t reach the age at which they themselves yield seeds.
That means that by 2100, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem will have changed more than it has in the last 10,000 years and will, therefore, look significantly different than it does today. The researchers say that the loss of today’s forest vegetation is even now leading to a reduction in the carbon stored in the ecosystem, and it will also have a profound impact on the biodiversity and recreational value of this iconic landscape.
The trends identified in this study are also intended to help national park visitors understand the consequences of climate change and the urgency of instituting data-led, climate-protection measures.
Keeping the good fires and banishing the bad
Adopting such science-based approaches would surely help prepare forests for the impact of future climate changes. According to Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, the nonprofit conservation concern dedicated to protecting and restoring threatened forest ecosystems, distinguishing between good fires and bad fires will also be key.
Many forests evolved with fire. They need a certain amount of fire to clear out undergrowth and to release seeds from some conifer cones. Unfortunately, climate change has dried out forests and supercharged many wildfires. This combination leads to fires that burn so intensely that nothing will regrow in many places, unless we go back and reforest these areas once the fire has passed.
Allowing the good fires to move through our forests when they occur naturally and creating “prescribed burns”—lighting small fires and managing them—will help rebalance forest density by clearing out smaller, younger trees to create space that prevents climate-fueled superfires. At the same time, it will ensure that the trees that remain have enough water to survive and thrive.
Our firefighting approach needs to evolve and become climate-smart, as well. Rather than putting out all fires, good fires from lightning strikes and other natural causes should be allowed to cleanse forests to create healthy ecosystems with the ability to bounce back. And in the aftermath of those wildfires, we need to use science and AI-enabled tools to identify and embrace climate-resilient reforestation, instead of simply replanting things as they were. For example, we could move trees that are used to drier and hotter conditions from lower elevations to higher elevations to increase a forest’s chances for surviving climate change.
Reintroducing wildlife that eats the parts of bushes and trees that are most likely to catch fire could also stop burns in their tracks.
Walking the woodlands
Some wrongly conclude that the climate-change-fueled wildfire crisis means forests can’t help in the battle against a warming world, as scorched woodlands release a lot of stored carbon into the atmosphere. But they can. Overall, our forests are still an overwhelming net solution for the negative effects of climate change.
If you’re still in doubt, try taking a walk in a woodland after a fire has moved through it—when it’s safe. You, too, might find a new perspective and a hotbed of hope.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,