Wildfires Part of Ecoystem, Scientists Say as Western Smoke Seen From Space

Gila National Forest, flickr
Written by Joseph Mayton


Wildfires in the Western United States have prompted evacuations in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington as tens of thousands of firefighters attempt to tame the more than 150 wildfires currently ablaze.

New images from space reveal the sheer amount of smoke being created can be seen from space. As work continues unabated to contain each individual fire, scientists and forestry experts say that communities should understand the role wildfires play on ecosystems. The constant need to put them out immediately, coupled with drought conditions, has created superfires that are leaving tragedy and destruction on a mass scale in their wake.

“Wildfire is part of the ecosystem,” said Earthjustice attorney Greg Loarie, who argued that research and science are proving that fire is a natural part of any healthy environment, despite the tragedy that has evolved during the last few months of hazardous fires in the West’s forests.

He continued to say that much biodiversity is the result of wildfires and many plants and animals cannot produce without such fires occurring. “They rely on fires and it becomes a sort of natural regeneration of ecosystems. We’ve spent decades vilifying fire instead of understanding the need to find a way to re­introduce fire into forests before they erupt in seemingly uncontrollable ways as is happening now.”

Both the John Muir Project and Sierra Forest Legacy agree, arguing that fire is a natural part of any environment and that the constant desire to control fires could be contributing to the extensive power and destruction currently being witnessed.

In August 2013 the Rim Fire hit the central Sierra Nevada in much the same manner as the Northern California fires of the current season. Hundreds of thousands of acres were hit by the fire, which media described as “catastrophic,” and “destructive.” But Chad Hanson, John Muir Project’s Director, argued that the “Rim fire is a good thing for the health of the forest ecosystem. It is not devastation, or loss. It is ecological restoration.” He continued in a piece published in Earth Island Journal that the ecosystems and habitats were not lost, but in fact help create a budding new environment where all sorts of flora and fauna thrive.

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“This forest rejuvenation begins in the first spring after the fire,” Hanson writes. “Native wood­boring beetles rapidly colonize burn areas, detecting the fires from dozens of miles away through infrared receptors that these species have evolved over millennia, in a long relationship with fire.”

We've spent decades vilifying fire instead of understanding the need to find a way to re­introduce fire into forests Click to Tweet

And despite what Hanson and Loarie argue is the “vilifying” of wildfires in modern media and conversation, historically fire has been a vital part of the Americas. The Native Americans used controlled burning to modify vegetation. While helping to create new grasslands, open woodland and areas for settlement, it also helped preserve the natural forest. The allowing of natural fires to burn in a controlled manner, enabled for a healthier environment for the early human inhabitants in the Americas.

But today, as development extends to previously remote areas, civilization is aiming to tame fire. While understandable from a public safety perspective, Loarie argues that in order to preserve the environment, “we need to start allowing fire to return to the landscape, allowing it to routinely burn through with a range of severity.” He doesn’t argue for giving complete free run of the fire, but to permit it to run in course in the most natural way it intended.

This, he argues, would help end the stigma of wildfires in order to “better understand how we need to live together, and not against, our environment.”

The current fires have led to the largest mobilization of firefighters in 15 years, the U.S. Forest Service reports.

The Soda Fire in Idaho has burned around 300,000 acres leading to wild horse deaths and other damage. One woman was killed in Idaho from fire.

Overall this year, over seven million acres have burned. “This is the earliest the number of acres burned has been more than 7 million in the past 20 years,” said a statement from the National Interagency Coordination Center.

Although it did acknowledge around five million of those acres burned earlier in the year in Alaska, it says that the only recorded year to see this amount of acreage burned in an entire year was 1963. The country is at the highest wildfire preparedness Level 5 since Aug. 13.

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Source: National Interagency Fire Center, Earth Island Journal
Further Reading: ABC 7


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The importance of wildfires to the forest ecosystem is well known and accepted by scientists and conservation groups, but poorly understood by the public and politicians. Education and demanding science-based solutions to forestry management is key to reducing "superfires" in years to come.

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Joseph Mayton

Freelance writer based in San Francisco.

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Wildfires Part of Ecoystem, Scientists Say as Western Smoke Seen From Space

by Joseph Mayton
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