FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Burnt Forest is a Healthy Forest

Recently I was wandering through a burnt forest in the aftermath of a wildfire with a mixed group of people as part of a field trip with a forest collaborative. We were examining the burn severity pattern that a recent wildfire had carved through the forest.  In many places, the fire had barely charred the ground, while in other places nearly all the trees had been killed.

Standing among the black snags that were created in the aftermath of a particularly high severity burn, someone asked how long it would take for the forest to “recover.”  That is a common question I hear frequently from people, and certainly that is the way most people view the aftermath of wildfires.  When they ask how long it will take to “recover” from the fire, they mean, how long will it take for tall, green trees to repopulate the area.

Though it is nearly universal among most people who have been taught to think about wildfires as “destructive”, from an ecological perspective it belies a failure to really understand forest ecology. It is the wrong question and certainly the wrong perspective to hold.

Green trees are only one part of a forest ecosystem life cycle, just as the river channel is only one part of a river system. Burnt forests are as important to forest ecosystems as flood plains are to river systems. Just as floods rejuvenate a river changing river channels, creating new habitat for colonizing plants like cottonwood and willow, and high flows allow some fish and aquatic organisms to migrate and move through the river system, wildfires also create important habitat and opportunities within forested ecosystems.

A “healthy” river is one that periodically floods. Among most western ecosystems, a “healthy” forest is one that periodically burns.  Just as the intensity of floods can vary over time—with annual, 100 year and 500 year floods, the intensity and frequency of wildfires also varies depending on many factors including the species of plants living in a site, climatic changes, and so forth.

The burnt snags and blackened ground we were walking through were not “recovering’ from the fire.  Rather the burnt forest with its snags, open soils, and flood of nutrients was “recovering” from the green forest. Wildfires are the major recruitment mechanism for creation of standing snags and fallen logs. And these are critical elements in most forest ecosystems.

If you are a wood boring insect, you love the blackened snags—and if you are a black-backed woodpecker you find a virtual smorgasbord among the snags.  If you are a cavity nesting bird like the western bluebird or tree swallow than the burnt forest represents an abundance of new residential real estate.If you are a spotted owl, you hunt among the snags for the rodents that proliferate due to  new seed producing shrubs, flowers and grasses. And among the charred snags, elk will find abundant forage on the invigorated new growth of shrubs and grass.

As these snags fall to the ground, they are invaded by wood-living bees and wasps that will pollinate the new shrubs and wildflowers that burst into color in the aftermath of a fire.  The fallen logs will be colonized by yet other life forms from fungi to lichens and provide the home for small rodents. Dead logs become hiding cover and travel pathways for marten, fisher, and lynx.

It is for these and many other reasons that burnt forests have the second highest biodiversity after old growth forests, and are the only habitat for some species. Given that the snag forests that result in the aftermath of a forest fire are temporally and spatially rare—there is nearly always more green forest than fire killed forests on the landscape at any one time—these fire-dependent and fire created ecosystems are actually more rare than almost any other kind of habitat.

Words are important because they shape the way we perceive things. That is why to suggest that the forest is “recovering” from a wildfire implies a failure to appreciate the ecosystem’s needs. At least in most western forest ecosystems, a “healthy” forest is one that burns.  Indeed, after fire, we might be more ecologically correct and truthful if we said the forest ecosystem is recovering from the green forest.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

 

 

More articles by:

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Justin Anderson
Don’t Count the Left Out Just Yet
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail