NATURE NOTES - Number 17 March 26, 2021
Our current topic: Wildfires
Charlie Daniels had a song out several years ago with the lyrics: “Fire on the Mountain, Run Boys Run!” That’s probably the most important thing to remember about scouts confronting a wildfire. Perhaps a “controlled” run. Wildfires are unpredictable, can move faster than most people realize and can be deadly, so exercise caution any time scouts have the potential to be exposed to this danger. Enough on fire safety.
So are forest fires good or bad? Answer: Yes.
Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment is one of the few colleges in the country with staff dedicated to the teaching and researching of wildfires. There is a course there called Wildfire: Ecology and Management. In Virginia, this is an under-studied area. Fire has always played a role in our forests, but most research has focused on the western U.S. As humans encroach more into the forest the importance of minimizing damage to life and property becomes more important. Education of developers and property owners is a growing effort. While many of the fires out west in the high country are lightning caused, most fires in the east are caused by man. Remember what Smokey said. A carefully planned reduction of fuel accumulation by controlled burns is a growing tool used by foresters. It is not appropriate everywhere, but in some cases a controlled burn will reduce the risk of a major fire by burning out the dried logs, stumps, and other fuel that has accumulated over many years. These burns can also be used to create or modify wildlife habitat.
If a fire does develop in the mountains of SW Virginia, the normal approach to combating it is with a lot of difficult and dangerous back-breaking work of various agencies such as local fire departments, the Virginia Department of Forestry and often federal agencies. The firefighters have to be certified as wildfire fighters and receive training in fire characteristics, safety, equipment operation, etc. Analyzing the projected path of the fire requires knowledge of weather, terrain, and type and moisture content of the fuel. Wildfire crews seldom have the luxury of pulling up to a hydrant and rolling out the hose. At times aerial tankers and helicopters are used, but bulldozers or fire plows and fire rakes are more common tools used to build a bare-earth line around the fire to remove fuel in its path.
Remember, fire needs three things to exist: heat, oxygen and fuel. Remove any one of the three and the fire goes out. Removing the fuel is usually the approach used on most wildfires.
So what are some good things about fires? We have mentioned the use of fires to modify wildlife habitat by removing understory and stimulating growth of wildlife friendly grasses, shrubs and herbaceous plants favored by many animals. Also, unknown by many people, is the role fire – or more specifically, heat – plays in the germination of pine seeds. Several species, such as Longleaf and Pond pine are very fire resistant, and some species require high heat to open the cone and release the seeds. Without fire this reproduction would not occur. Fires can impact greatly on the soil beneath the burned area as well, but that is for another NATURE NOTE.
If you find a section that has been burned, watch that area over a period of time. You will note that the forest is not destroyed, but changed. Within a year, the burned area will be showing signs of recovery with many small green plants finding a place to flourish in the sunlight. You won’t notice the new trees as quickly, but nature is reestablishing her territory. In another year, you can start seeing little trees. These trees too will have a great opportunity to grow fast. Within a few years the old burned area will be thick with new vegetation, providing new wildlife habitat, and absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen with great efficiency. This transformation is called plant succession, and the first trees to appear are called pioneer species. In time, the species composition may change. Make a point to show scouts this process if at all possible. It demonstrates the resilience of the forest and the fact that change is always occurring in the forest. Watch for these changes and let your nature-knowledge grow with the new forest.