Forest ecologists’ approach to fighting wildfires: How biology research on forests is changing the way we deal with wildfires

William Woods Undergraduate

How biology research on forests is changing the way we deal with wildfires

The devastation caused by wildfires in Northern California has dominated the news in recent months. Loss of human life, destruction of homes and displacement of entire communities have sparked both a political and scientific debate about how best to deal with wildfires.

For some, it may appear that the answer is investing in more resources and growing capabilities related to suppressing wildfires faster and more effectively. However, a recent New York Times article examines an ecological perspective, offering insight into the value of doing just the opposite — not putting out wildfires.

Ecological experts such as Dr. Chad T. Hanson, who study the science behind wildfires, explain that wildfires have an important role in our environment. For one, they help preserve plants and animals that prefer charred forests as their habitat, such as black-backed woodpeckers. Secondly, wildfires are important for shaping how forests grow and evolve over time. They preserve the long-term health of forests by thinning them out — a critical factor in managing the intensity of future wildfires. When left to burn, wildfires create bare patches or gaps in forests which help alleviate the spread and severity of future wildfires.

In essence, many scientists agree that having some wildfires is actually good for the environment. And it is only in our recent history that suppressing wildfires became the norm. Significant scientific evidence suggests that wildfires were part of a natural forest environment in the U.S. pre-1900’s. However, those fires were far less severe than the ones we see today.

Wildfires that are larger than 100,000 acres, also known as megafires, have been on the rise in the last 30 years. And ecologists like Paul Hessburg believe it’s in large part due to current practice of fire suppression. By suppressing majority of wildfires in the last 100 years, Hessburg argues that we have created much denser forests that are far more vulnerable to megafires.

In his recent TEDx talk, Hessburg discusses some of the possible ways governments can deal with wildfires as opposed to consistently putting them out.

First, he recommends prescribed burning, a practice of intentionally burning forests to thin them out and get them back to their more natural state. This will create gaps that can resist the spread and severity of future fires. Hessburg also suggests mechanical thinning of forests especially in areas bordering urban or populated communities. Finally, he recommends managed wildfires, a practice of herding wildfires rather than putting them out — thus leveraging nature’s own mechanism for forest thinning.

Unfortunately, the public awareness of the dangers associated with continuous fire suppression is very low. Most people feel that putting out fires is simply essential for their safety. As a result, governments are far less motivated to disrupt or challenge old methods of dealing with wildfires, thus perpetuating the problem of denser forests and the possibility of bigger and greater wildfires.

At William Woods University, students earning a bachelor’s degree in biology can take courses such as BIO 330 – Ecology. This course examines the interaction of living organisms with each other and their environment while exposing students to the fields of natural history, forestry, agriculture, wildlife ecology and taxonomy.

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