Fight fire with fire
Steamboat Springs — With fires consuming houses while burning millions of acres of land in the United States last summer and local county and city officials squabbling over wildland fire coverage, it’s easy to become overly sensitive to the idea of fire in the environment.
But the fact is, we are finding out that we need fire. We need to let fires burn. We need them to scorch the land black.
Of course a wildfire causes a certain level of anxiety and, in a worse-case scenario, it can cause significant property damage. I remember last year watching flames burn maybe 40 feet above the trees near Lynx Pass, while moving within 10 yards of a newly built home before fire crews from each fire district in the county managed to suppress the flames. I cursed the fire and wished that it never was an issue to deal with in the forest. Fortunately, no homes were damaged.
I also remember another fire last year, off Twentymile Road near Oak Creek. A property owner there was doing a controlled burn to improve the grazing lands for his sheep. The wind picked up and swept the flames high and out of his control. When I arrived, the Oak Creek Fire Protection District crews were circling the fire and before long had extinguished most of the danger. Later, Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup told me the extra land that burned ended up being a blessing in disguise. The land was overgrown with thick sagebrush, which was destroyed in the fire. That reduced future fire danger in the area and opened up more land for native grasses to grow.
Without humans in the valley changing nature’s balance, fires would probably happen on a regular basis and they are essential for the health of the environment. Now biologists are considering that most forest fires actually would start in valleys then burn their way up to thicker timber.
After a fire, the flames leave a scorched earth, which is ground zero so to speak for a regenerative process on the land. Carbon, which is the most essential element of life on Earth is broken down to a form within the ashes for plants that thrive on the scorched land to use, explained local biologist Rod Bringuel.
These patches of burned land then create a mosaic of species habitat on the land. Areas where fire hasn’t occurred in a long time have older, longer-living vegetation like sagebrush that outcompete other native plants. Those plant species, however, outcompete longer-living species on a short-term basis in areas where fire recently has happened. This creates a diversity of plants in the forest, which in turn creates a diversity of animal and insect species that thrive in each type of vegetation, Bringuel explained.
Forest Service officials estimate the areas they burned in a prescribed fire a few weeks ago will have substantial regrowth by the end of the summer, starting the process of diversification.
Land without a diversity of species isn’t healthy land; so land without fire essentially isn’t healthy.
The point being, a wildfire is not a bad thing unless it destroys someone’s home. This shifts our view of a wildland firefighter to a fire controller, not a fire extinguisher. Our responsibilities as stewards of the Earth we live on is no longer to stop fire from happening. It’s to stop the fire that does happen from destroying our homes.
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