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Is there a good side to forest fires?

The media is abuzz with the devastating wildfires in western and central Canada. Tens of thousands of hectares have been impacted, and countless lives and families upset. As you read on, please don’t think for a moment that I am uncaring for those impacted, but is there an upside to these fires where nature is concerned?

From the perspective of wild things, both plant and animal, fires have been a reality since the glaciers receded from our land, and nature has adapted and thrived. When we came onto the landscape, for the most part, we didn’t understand the intricate environmental relationships which preceded us.

For example, when forests are allowed to grow to and beyond maturity, they actually become much weaker than if some form of harvesting is done. Fires are a ‘selective’ harvest in nature, not the broad sweeping forest clearing humans think is best. Man-made techniques are counter-productive, by enlarge, and lead to monocultural landscapes rather than the diverse web that nature created. Without forest fires, Jack Pines couldn’t thrive. The trees need fire to open their cones to start the next generation. Jack Pines serve many purposes, amongst which is the fact, without them, we likely wouldn’t have Kirtland’s Warblers. These warblers need pines of a certain age to provide their breeding habitat, and fire makes sure this is available.

Many other species of plants emerge as fire moves across the landscape. We have all heard of successional forests, where the meadows gradually move from grassland to mature forest over many generations. This is not a simple process and, as the forest develops, the landscape changes. New plant species come and go, and everything from bugs to birds change as the landscape matures. Fire is a means to accelerate this process. In a short time, the canopy is opened, sunlight gets to the understory and plants spring up from the apparently barren landscape. Fireweed is amongst the first flower but within weeks, other plants which were never seen in the area sprout and thrive. This means new vital habitats for everything!

The fires have destroyed the homes of many species. Still, as long as there is habitat in the proximity, they will move to it. More importantly, other species might have been habitat-limited and now they have a new home to come to. The lost young and nests of breeding species is a sad outcome but, in healthy environments, wildlife can survive, as the pool of individuals is still large enough to offset the losses.

One unusual outcome of fires is, not all species just move to adjacent lands. Some species will move several kilometres and, in some cases, vast distances, looking for new places to call home. This can encourage a range expansion for some species, as these pioneers may find a new place to thrive, far from their traditional grounds. This leads to better genetic diversity, as ‘in-breeding’ is no longer a possibility, due to distance.

Sometimes, an insect pest has become so overwhelming to a local forest the trees are doomed and will die, but without fires, it takes much longer for the nutrient resources in the dying trees to be recycled back into the environment. The advantage of fire is two-fold, it kills the trees and their insect pests and recycles the nutrients much more quickly. Another bonus is, new insects invade the charred carcasses of the trees and many birds such as woodpeckers thrive on the bounty.

In northern Ontario, I recently had the opportunity to visit a ‘burn,’ a fire had occurred here two years ago, and the number of woodpeckers utilizing this new open habitat and feeding on the insect larvae, deep inside the trees, was amazing!

So, in a nutshell, fire opens up the forest floor and allows the recycling of nutrients for the benefit of all forest dwellers. This is but a glance into the many benefits of fires. Nature is a compelling survivor, and the better we learn to live within this model, the better we all will be.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online at LinkedIn and Facebook.

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