Managing Wild Fires and Controlled Fires

John Stuart discusses the differences between managing wild fires and controlled fires and problems that may arise in each situation.

| June/July 2003

Learn about the differences between managing wild fires and controlled fires.

In my early years working for a volunteer fire department, the mission could not have been more clear: Control the chaos, save the house, put the fire out!

During the same years, I worked on controlled burns on commercial forests, where we operated under an entirely different understanding. Here, fire was fulfilling its beneficial, primeval mission. Low flames crackled across the hillsides, reducing to ash the incendiary branches and needles that could have fueled large destructive fires some time in the future. After the burns, the enriched soil provided a fertile bed for new tree seedlings. Valuable nutrients in the ash were absorbed quickly by the emerging vegetation.

Decades of research (and a certain amount of common sense) show that fire is not only beneficial in many natural settings, but that it is necessary to sustain the life cycles of many living things.There are differences between managing wild fires and controlled fires.

Fire is inevitable in many forest and grassland habitats. It is an eloquent promoter of diversity. Walk through a burned area in the years following a fire and watch the amazing parade of emerging life. Mushrooms sprout; fruit-bearing shrubs — roses, vacciniums (blueberries, huckleberries) and the Rubus genus (raspberries, blackberries) — can cover hundreds of acres within five years after a fire. The animals follow. Brushy plants and grasses that sprout after a fire are haute cuisine for the big herbivores: moose, elk and deer.

Last summer, the Biscuit Fire burned a national forest in Oregon. Although the perimeter encompassed 500,000 acres, about half of these acres burned lightly or not at all. Much of the media covered the event as a tragedy for the natural environment. In fact it was just the kind of fire that promotes healthy plant and animal life.

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