Our forests are burning, what should we do about it?
Root of a Growing Crisis
Fire is a major disturbance factor that has both beneficial and detrimental effects. Some forest ecosystems are adapted to fire and depend on it to retain their vigor and reproductive capacity. The fires that were a natural part of California’s historical landscape cleared the forest floor of debris and small trees, leaving soil, larger trees and waterways intact. Fires might have covered large areas, but flames stayed close to the ground and at relatively modest temperatures. Low intensity fires are part of a healthy forest.
Since the 20th century, the U.S. policy for any form of forest fire, was quickly suppressed for fear of uncontrollable and destructive inferno after a series of massive fires in the late 19 th century. By putting out forest fires for more than 100 years instead of allowing the natural process of clearing the forest excess vegetation and debris has deteriorated the health of the forests and left excess wildfire fuel on our forest floors.
Catastrophic Wildfires Put Ecosystems in Peril
Today’s wildfires are much more different. High intensity fires engulf the forest in their entirety and are capable of reaching 3,000 degrees, hot enough to melt metal. At that temperature, soil becomes sterile, waterways are destroyed and there are severe changes in biodiversity. Catastrophic wildfires are happening more and more frequently and at higher intensity due to rising temperatures, drying conditions and more lightning brought by global warming. Without proper forest management, we can only expect the problem to continue to grow and become more and more dangerous to our environment, communities and health.
Preparing for the Future: How to Reduce the Risks of Fires
Proactively managing forests can restore ecosystem health and improve habitat quality by using a variety of fire management tools.
- Reduce Hazardous Fuels. Selective harvesting, thinning treatments, brush removal and pruning are practices used by foresters to thin out forests crowded with too many trees, branches and undergrowth.
- Implement “Prescribed fires.” Prescribed fires are managed fires used to clear out heavy, dry vegetation and debris under trees on the forest floor to allow for new vegetation to grow.
- Restore Ecosystems affected by past wildfires. Replant and restore forestland damaged by wildfire to enable the area to recover and re-grow the forest to a healthy condition.
Forests need to be managed so that the risks of catastrophic wildfires are minimized. The management tools listed above can also reduce other disturbances like airborne pollution, storm felling, invasive species, diseases and insects.