Everybody has heard of Smoky the Bear. And everybody has seen the campaigns in which Smoky declares, “Only you can help prevent forest fires!” It’s largely because of this that most people believe forest fires are universally terrible events.
But what if forest fires aren’t always terrible? In fact, what if a forest fire also has positive effects?
This is indeed the case, as the positive effects of forest fires may not get talked about as widely and publicly as Smoky discussing the need to prevent forest fires. However, the positive effects of a forest fire are very real, and people should work to better understand them.
There are many outstanding resources, like Mr. Tree, with great information about the positive effects of forest fires. But don’t get the wrong impression that forest fires have more positive than negative effects.
Uncontrolled and extensive forest fires can destroy a forest’s biodiversity. They can also make it nearly impossible for the forest to ever truly recover from the lingering effects. The truth is, while there are plenty of forest fire positive effects, there are many terribly negative effects. That’s why Smoky the Bear exists.
So remember that while forest fires can be very good when controlled and goal-oriented, uncontrolled forest fires are reckless, dangerous, and can do horrible, long-lasting damage to a forest.
Forest fires set with the intention of producing positive effects need to be carried out in a controlled manner. This will ensure that those goals, like the ones listed below, are met.
Shrub-like plants and bushes make up a predominate portion of forest undergrowth. Burning out this undergrowth can lead to more productive growth because it adds potash—a potassium-rich salt—to the soil. This increases the nutrients in the soil. When fresh soil with fresh nutrients replaces old soil with far fewer nutrients, it can rejuvenate trees in the forest. This can be of major benefit to any creature inhabiting the forest. This fresh soil growing is an example of slash and burn agriculture and is more conducive to producing higher-quality vegetation than the old soil would have been.
One positive effect of a forest fire is that the forest floor is less combustible. It breaks the chain and strengthens the floor against future wildfires that could be far larger and far more intense. In other words, the fire that comes today may do damage but will ultimately make the collection of trees in the forest much stronger than previously.
Think of this along the lines of getting a flu shot. You feel a little weak for a day but, as a result, have severely limited the chances you’ll contract a far more serious illness down the line. Ideally, you would prefer for no damage to ever be necessary, but if damage in the form of a controlled fire is needed to boost the long-term good of the survival of the trees in a forest, then it can clearly be viewed as a positive occurrence.
Setting a controlled fire can help manage the forest area more easily. It’s possible land may need to be cleared during a conversion of the area or over the course of a cycle. If done in a controlled manner, a forest fire can get this job done well, quickly, and in a manner that saves on labor costs. As unpleasant as it sounds to burn an area of a forest, being able to manage the forest and save money are legitimate concerns, and a controlled fire may be the answer to assuage those concerns.
A controlled forest fire can also help disinfect an area that has become overrun with weeds.
Some plants need a combination of sunlight and extreme heat to germinate. Only a fire can provide this environment. There are other artificial means of attempting to provide this kind of heat and light to the plants. However, realistically, there’s no way for those methods to be as effective as a controlled fire.
These plants—examples of which include lodgepole and jack pines—require this extreme heat to open their cones. In other words, fire facilitates the germination process necessary for the plant to thrive. If the plant thrives, that’s a major positive—not just for the plant itself, but for all the wildlife that rely on those plants for food and nutrients.
A controlled forest fire creates hollows in logs and improves vegetation conditions. What does this mean for the forest? It means many of the animals living in the forest will benefit in a variety of ways. First, the hollows in logs can be used by the forest’s animals for expanded nesting and shelter options. This is critical for the wildlife in the forest because, out in the wild, safe nesting and shelter can be difficult for many animals to obtain. This helps with that immensely.
In addition, many of the forest’s animals—such as deer and elk—will benefit as far as food goes because fire can bring about new growth. Plus, the vegetation that occurs as a result can provide those animals with a greater and more diverse food supply. This is extremely important because there’s constant competition for food in an open wildlife area like a forest. Anything that alleviates the intensity of that competition and allows for more animals to have an easier time finding the food needed to survive is something that is undeniably positive.