Embracing The Fire

Since the middle of last century, we have aggressively worked to stop forest fires across the country, and particularly in California.  From Smokey Bear’s ad campaigns to boy scout lessons, Californians worked to prevent forest fires, thinking that they damaged the forest.

But in Yosemite National Park, in central California, fire is viewed differently. The forest needs to burn to survive, although fire was once thought to be an enemy of the region’s giant sequoia trees. People used to think that the park’s beautiful trees needed to be protected from fire, according to Gus Smith, a fire ecologist.

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But scientists have come to realise that years of suppressing fire in Yosemite prevented the trees from reproducing.

Excluding fire from the ecosystem allowed leaves and other vegetation to build up around the trees. The litter stopped seeds from germinating in exposed soil and a dense canopy of foliage blocked the sunlight from reaching the forest floor.

“I think that we need to see more fire and the benefits of fire,” says Mr Smith. (BBC 12/3/09)

The forests existed before humans were here, and they just may last beyond our interference. However, as the line between forest lands and residential areas becomes ever more blurry, the question of which fires to stop, which to contain becomes ever more challenging.

One thing that is clear: fighting fires in the old method of suppressing everything has led to some pretty bad results.  Fires are more ferocious with the added fuel, and we haven’t actually kept structures out of jeopardy.  As we move forward with whatever limited resources CalFire will have, the state will need to work to not only allow proper burns of state forest lands, but also to provide education.  We have 50 years of bad messaging on the suffocation of fire to overcome. We can’t hit the panic switch every time we see smoke. People who have chosen to live in fire-prone areas must now what they can do to make their home as safe as possible.

However, we will never end the threat of fire as water becomes ever more scarce. And so, management of the sort that the National Park Service is doing at Yosemite will become increasingly important.