Fire has a critical role to maintain and restore California’s unique, varied ecosystems.
Here in the northern part of our state, the presence of regular, mixed severity fire:
- is intimately connected with patterns of plant and animal diversity
- helps maintain forests with a variety of tree species in many stages of development
- plays a role in rejuvenating and dispersing groundwater in watersheds that support endangered salmonid populations, and
- provides water to downstream users in large urban areas.
In our currently over-stocked and under-managed forests, the threat of large scale wildfires will most likely increase in coming years. Sonoma County’s Tubbs fire and Ventura’s Thomas fires in 2017 wreaked massive destruction and loss of life. That means we have to change our collective understanding and accept the role fire plays in our local ecosystems.
Each fire has a limiting factor: it stops where there is no fuel. Well-managed prescribed burns consume unwanted fuel and reduce fire dangers. In contrast to brushing (i.e. cutting and removing biomass), prescribed burns literally convert such material into carbon, and recycle it back to the ecosystem where it can feed the soil, microbes, fungi, and plants that support wildlife and human life.
Before settlers arrived, Native Californian tribes used prescribed fire for generations. Fires maintained biodiversity, kept rivers cool in the summer (thus benefitting the fish), created suitable habitat for culturally significant animal and plant species, and created buffers around homes and villages. Native techniques kept fires contained to areas where they were beneficial, rather than destructive.
Tribal understanding of fire use is nuanced and detailed. There are different fire prescriptions for different species of culturally useful plants and even different prescriptions for encouraging different growth forms in the same species of plant!
While relationships between fire and plant communities are well known, fewer speak of the relationship fire has to water and for the maintenance of healthy river and groundwater systems. In particular, trees establish the connection between fires and groundwater systems.
Periodic mid to low-intensity managed fires clear dense and dead fuels which create “ladder conditions” moving unexpected fires more dangerously into the crown of the trees. Crown fires characterize the high severity, scorched earth wildfires we’ve recently seen that destroy communities. They are extremely hard to contain and spread rapidly when conditions are right. Regular, preventative prescribed fire, combined with pre-treatment brushing to reduce fuel loads, reduces fire threats to places people live.
Regular and nuanced prescribed fire practices encourage good forest composition, including trees of many species at a variety of stages of development. In turn, this encourages communities of native, fire-adapted plants, also at a variety of life stages, which attract wildlife, pollinators, etc.
Some amount of dead material provides homes and shelter for animal and bird species. Larger trees (specifically hardwoods) have deeper root systems than smaller trees. During the day, their roots pull water from deep within the soil, providing the tree with water needed for photosynthesis. At night, this process halts and the trees distribute collected water horizontally to neighboring plants.
This process, called hydraulic redistribution, is enormously important for healthy water cycling and surface water in ecosystems. It’s no surprise that deeply rooted trees and plants enhance this process. Large megafires destroy these older trees which resist damage in a lower intensity fire. Such fires reduce the ecosystem’s capacity for hydraulic redistribution and cycling of water.
Finally, fire has a beneficial effect on river temperatures and imperiled fish species.
Before European contact in northern California, minimal to moderate amounts of smoke settled into mountainous riparian watershed corridors during the hot months of the year – critical times for returning salmonid populations. The smoke reduced solar radiation and in turn kept summer water temperatures cool in upstream environments.
Today, at certain times of the year our air becomes red from huge volumes of megafire smoke. In contrast to these, the amount of smoke prescribed fires emit is orders of magnitude less yet is still enough to cool summer river temperatures.
Smoke and fire is not something we typically see as a benefit or blessing. What can we do to change our relationship with a natural, healthy ecosystem process that has created such fear and destruction in the western US?
- Familiarity. Learn how fire affects ecosystems of your own back yard. Fire behaves quite differently in the sage scrub of the north and central coast as compared to mixed conifer-hardwood forests of the Sierra Nevada.
- Participate. Contact your local agencies and environmental non-profits to participate in local fire management. You could become a member of your community Fire Safe Council, attend a prescribed fire, or volunteer at an organization which supports changing our relationship with fire.
- Donate. Help support those organizations near and far that help create diverse, fire adapted ecosystems and protect ecosystem services – abundant, clean water, air, and diverse forests.
The Mount Shasta Bioregional Ecology Center is increasing community awareness of the benefits of responsible, ecologically targeted prescribed fire and the ecology of our diverse mountain ecosystems.
We welcome your support and participation in workshops to discuss community issues surrounding fire. We advocate and build local Prescribed Fire Associations to engage and educate private landowners and give them available tools to support the stewardship of their homes and properties.
– Arielle Halpern, Senior Program Director