Published January 2005

We’ve had some bad years recently for major fires.  Severe drought in southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah brought wildfires that burned hundreds of thousands of acres, drove many from their homes, killed untold wildlife creatures, and destroyed millions of trees.  Obviously, fire is bad.  Or is it, at least always?

Once upon a time fire was a major enemy, and popular opinion held that fire degraded ecosystems and reduced biodiversity.  So, any fire was battled into submission as fast as possible.  But foresters and forest biologists are finding out that fire can actually help wild plants and animals, and controlled burns are becoming a tool to improve the land, rather than harm it.

Remember the huge Yellowstone National Park fires in 1988?  Ecologists were beating their breasts over that one, and predicting irreparable damage to one of our most popular parks.  But what actually happened?  The fires burned off much of the mature conifer timber, leaving clearings where sunlight could penetrate.  The ashes acted as prime fertilizer since nutrients held tight by fallen needles and trees were released, and the landscape bloomed with grasses, herbs, and shrubs.

Can you guess what’s happened to populations of buffalo, elk, deer, and smaller creatures there?  I visited Yellowstone again just two years ago, and while there were still blackened trunks reaching high in some places, the wildlife was abundant everywhere and meadows dotted with grazing animals stretched where forests had been before. Fires aren’t all bad.

Actually, man has been using fire for his own purposes for a long time.  Africans had long had a policy of firing the veldt before the first white men arrived, this to burn off old grasses and stimulate growth of new plants that brought back the game herds.  Native Americans did much the same and for the same reason, either on western prairies or right here in Ohio to clear the woods of undergrowth and promote grasslands attractive to game.

It’s a simple fact of life that mature forest offers little food to other than squirrels and a few species of birds, so the Indians routinely started fires to produce or maintain small prairies, savannahs, and barrens around the state that were prime for hunting.  Pioneers did much the same, using fire to help clear their land for farms, eliminate brush, and rid the woods of “vermin.”

Today, fire has become a major tool, and Ohio foresters often conduct carefully orchestrated prescribed burns to remove litter from the forest floor that could accumulate and provide fodder for wild fires, to remove invasive plants like honeysuckle and allowed native plants to thrive.  Some plants actually can’t make it without occasional fire, among them lodgepole and jack pines whose cones won’t open and disperse seed until extreme heat opens them.  Then the seeds drop to a forest floor open, fertilized, and waiting for them to grow.

But fires, especially in Ohio, are never set casually.  Before a controlled fire can be lit, a detailed burn plan must be completed, one that describes the site, fuel type, and purpose of the burn.  It must outline the steps that will be taken to control the fire, weather conditions required, sensitive areas to be avoided, smoke control, and safety considerations.  Not a simple business, but one that helps Ohio’s wildlife and plants, and maintains biodiversity for all.

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