The devastating effects of uncontrolled forest fires across California and Australia are fast becoming a regular feature on worldwide news outlets. Imagery of homes ablaze and animals with terrible burns, depict an apocalyptic battle against nature, which humanity appears to be losing. The key to turning the tide lies in understanding the ecology of forest fires.
Finding a solution to this crisis is now on the minds of many in those countries worst affected. However, governments, communities and non-governmental organisations have failed to establish a clear and united approach to deal with the forest fire crisis1.
This continued lack of understanding and mismanagement of forest fires is routed in attempts to solve the issue by just throwing resources at the problem. Trying to prevent any fire in an area or adding wood capacity to timber stands that are worst affected. Both these approaches are far more harmful and far more likely to result in increased forest destruction than increased extreme weather1.
Controlled burn management of certain types of forest area, has been used effectively for thousands of years by hunter-gatherers and aboriginal tribes in Australia without biodiversity loss or increased deforestation. In fact, the burning of some areas of woodland is essential for their survival.
Certain species of plant, known as pyrophytes, either require fire in order to distribute their genetic material or have adapted to withstand regular scorchings. For instance, several species of pine use special ‘serotinous’ cones to germinate. Serotinous cones are very thick and remain glued closed by strong resins produced by the tree. These cones can remain fixed onto branches for years and require regular fires to dislodge and distribute their seeds 2.
‘Seeder’ pyrophytic plants die in fire and rely on specially evolved germination techniques, such as serotinous cones, to sprout the next generation. Alternatively, ‘sprouters’ tolerate and then regrow following the burn3. This use of fire in the germination of a next-generation has been named the ‘fire regime’ of such ecosystems, and is integral to their health2.
The cycle of regular burning for the health of this woodland type is in fact so important that several species of ‘active’ pyrophyte plants contain combustible oils to generate and encourage fires. One such example would be the widely grown gum tree, which encourages intense fires through highly flammable oil.
However, these burn cycles have been increasingly suppressed over fears of damage to biodiversity and property. In actuality, the preventing of regular burning of these forests results in an accumulation of flammable materials, which presents the real danger of massive and uncontrollable wildfires that can cause devastating and lasting damage to forest ecosystems, local communities and wildlife4.
Natural fires in forests which have been allowed to burn, through understanding controlled fire management, will burn surface fuel with very brief flame lengths which are largely harmless and can be contained. However, this accumulation of flammable vegetation, the increased density of tree cover and the suppression of small saplings, results in the creation of a under-story to the woodland. This under-story is particularly hazardous as it represents ‘ladder fuel’ which can carry fire upwards into the canopy of a forest area, resulting in uncontrollable and extremely fast moving wildfires5.
While it is true that wildfires are becoming increasingly common and dangerous due to the drastic climate change stimulated by human activity, historical management and the controlled burning of pyrophyte plants is a vital tool in preventing more damage to biodiversity, woodland, and personal property. Governments around the world must recognise the importance of effective forest management and understanding the ecology of their environment, in order to better protect themselves and prevent the possibility of future destruction of property and loss of life.
- Hardesty, J., Kelleher, S., Maginnis, S., Moore, P., Myers, R., (2003). Forests and Wildfires: Fixing the Future by Avoiding the Past. World Forestry Congress. Quebec City, Canada
- Mullen, L., (2017). How Trees Survive and Thrive After a Fire. Your National Forests Magazine. National Forests Foundation.
- Pimlico, D., (2019). Pyrophytes: Nature’s Fireproof Plants. Candide.
- National Geographic. (n.d.) Controlled Burning. Resource Library.
- Keeley, J.E., (2008). Fire Suppression. Encyclopedia of Ecology. pp 1557-1564.