It is often thought that Oregon forest fires are a major hazard to the local environment. However, only in the last hundred years or so has a fire in the forest been thought to be negative. Though fire can be a destructive force, it can also be a catalyst for necessary change. So even though it seems counterintuitive, forest fires can actually benefit the atmosphere in several ways.
(1) When Oregon forest fires burn, they can actually help revitalize the watershed in a variety of ways. This includes renewal of soil chemistry, increasing food sources for fish, replenishment of streamside vegetation, recycling of nutrients, and fire-adapted plants being dispersed. In addition, a stand burning can cause a patchwork mosaic on the landscape of younger forest patches which ultimately means fewer future forest fires. Without this happening, future wildfires could become so large so as to be out of control. A well-managed burn that is orderly to the point of staying at low or modest temperatures can remove dead and decaying plant material that has the potential to stoke widespread and deadly forest fires. On the other hand, if temperature below ground is increased only marginally, which is what happens with a controlled, lower temperature fire, there is less harm caused to the roots of trees and plants that are buried deep in the soil.
(2) Oregon forest fires allow for the renewal of the soil. Of course, this must occur outside of any areas that involve human development, as those areas being damaged would not be beneficial. Plants can be abnormally malleable to the blights of a forest fire, and some are even reliant on fire for their survival. In dry areas where fires occur often, some tree species have developed thick bark, making it conceivable for them to withstand several low-intensity fires. It’s not unusual to see trees in the forest with charred bark, proof of their capacity for enduring and even thriving from decreased competition due to acquiring nutrients made accessible after a fire. Some North American and European pines contain thicker bark and a large crown base that is high up in the canopy, which greatly increases the trees’ odds of surviving forest fires. A perfect example of this is the Ponderosa pine, which does not easily capitulate to forest fires due to its susceptible, flammable parts high above the path of most fires.
(3) The fact is, most forests need canopy fire to regenerate because most trees in the forest including lodgepole pine, pine barrens, and eucalyptus only produce seeds if there is a fire. So if no human comes along and artificially starts a fire for this purpose, a wildfire in the forest is the next best thing for producing those seeds. As an example, fireweed is frequently one of the earliest species to import new color to a forest with its pink-purple flowering in the wake of a forest fire, and fireweed is crucial for reestablishing vegetation into a burn site. It dies once other plants start to grow in, but the seeds remain in the soil for numerous years, waiting for a new fire or disturbance to open up space and transport light again to reintroduce germination.
(4) Intermittent burning increases biodiversity by inducing environmental changes that result in the boosting of plant and animal communities that are adapted to fire. This means “resetting the clock for the ecosystem” by allowing it to flourish for hundreds of years to come as a result. This is “survival of the fittest” since these environmental changes ensure that only the strong survive.
(5) Intermittent burning also decreases the annual fuel accumulation in forests and grasslands. The reduced amount of fuel build-up is not only a positive environmentally, it reduces the risk of said fuel generating greater fire strength and as a result, the entire ecosystem is less likely to be forced to deal with catastrophic wildfires. Again, this is an example of “seeing the forest from the trees,” so to speak, as stopping the fuel build-up means short-term burning increases but long-term burning, to a much greater degree, decreases. In a sense, this is the forest equivalent of preventative care, as the fires are the medicine that helps stop long-term damage from occurring.
(6) Wildfires remove low-growing underbrush, clean the forest floor of debris, and nourish the soil. Reducing this competition for nutrients allows established trees to grow stronger and healthier. History teaches us that hundreds of years ago forests had fewer, yet larger, healthier trees. Forests today have more trees than in the past, but they are not as large or healthy. Established trees have to compete with undergrowth for nutrients and space. Fire clears the weaker trees and debris and returns health to the forest. Clearing brush from the forest floor with low-intensity flames can help prevent large damaging wildfires that spread out of control and completely destroy forests. Under optimum conditions, when wildfires do start, the result is a low-intensity fire that remains on the ground burning grasses and vegetation, but causing less damage to trees.
(7) Forests provide shelters to animals and birds. Fire clears wildlands of heavy brush, leaving room for new grasses, herbs and regenerated shrubs that provide food and habitat for many wildlife species. When fire removes a thick stand of shrubs, the water supply is increased. With fewer plants absorbing water, streams are fuller, benefiting other types of plants and animals.
(8) Fire kills diseases and insects that prey on trees and provides valuable nutrients that enrich the soil. More trees die each year from insect infestation and disease than from fire. Many forests struggle against diseases such as pitch canker and bark beetle infestations – pests that destroy the part of the tree that delivers nutrients to the roots, leaves and needles. Fire kills pests and keeps the forest healthy. Vegetation that is burned by fire provides a rich source of nutrients that nourish remaining trees.