Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Fire in the Forest

Goddess Kali (from
Scotland's burning,
Scotland's burning,
Look out,
Look out,
Fire! Fire!
Fire! Fire!
Pour on water,
Pour on water!  Anonymous

She is beautiful and powerful like the Goddess Kali. Yet Mother Nature does not always play fair - sometimes she really lets go and reminds us of her natural processes in no uncertain terms. The last three days a fire has played havoc in the pine forests around Conifer, Colorado, and the wind has been an active character, keeping the fire hot and blazing, and grounding the planes that drop fire-retardant.

Fire has been a part of the Earth’s ecosystem forever; it plays a role in improving soil nutrients, increasing diversity and adjusting habitat structure. Fire and the West go hand in hand; droughts do occur and lightning does strike.  Smokey the Bear was a bit misinformed when he spread the word that fire should be suppressed at all costs. It is akin to the idea that humans could control a tsunami – a bit impossible to hold back an ocean wave of that force. Even with the best intentions, humans cannot always control  Mother Nature.

Many plants in the North American prairie and Western coniferous forests actually require fire to germinate their seeds; it is part of their life cycle. The seeds of the Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) need fire to melt the resin that envelopes them in order to be able to germinate. Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa) has adapted to fire in the ecosystem by naturally shedding its lower branches, thereby keeping its green canopy of live needles higher up the trunk – this adaptation enables the Ponderosa pine to survive a low intensity or ground fire. Fire will clean up a forest floor. It eliminates the buildup of litter (dead wood and brush) and opens up patches in the forest to additional sunlight, thereby enabling more herbaceous plants to take hold. Over time this increases the biodiversity. In a perfect world without human intervention this was the case:

Most ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests of the Intermountain West were open and park-like, with large, majestic trees underlain by dense grass swards. These low- and mid-elevation forests were shaped by millennia of recurrent forest fire, which helped maintain the forests' ecological integrity by reducing tree densities, controlling forest pests, and releasing a steady supply of nutrients into the soil (ONRC)

Photo from the news of the fire in Conifer fanned by winds

Suppression of fire in the ecosystem allows the forest to become too thick and dense – too many trees take hold in very close proximity to one another - - in addition,  there is unchecked accumulation of highly inflammable woody debris. When a fire does occur in this situation of thick understory fuel and densely packed trees - a hot raging fire is the result. Add in windy conditions, the recent warm dry spell, and human settlement and you have a terrible situation.

To control the event of high fuel, hot raging fire, forest management organizations such as Colorado State Forest Service, the USDA Forest Service, and Department of Interior organizations (BLM, BIA, NPS and Department F&W) perform “controlled or prescribed burns” to keep the fuel load in a forested region in check. In addition to the thinning of the tree stands.  This is wise ecological management but difficult to monitor to perfection. In the Conifer fire, many homes have been destroyed (900 people have been evacuated) and several people have died, possibly due to a prescribed burn mixed with the extremely warm dry weather. As a result, blame and shame will result and fire suppression will again be the local policy. The result of fire suppression will be a buildup of fuel and wood debris in the forest. And what happens when the next fire starts due to no human fault or management – but by lightning perhaps?  What do we do when Mother Nature just doesn’t play fair? How can we keep humans and their homes safe in an ecosystem that has a high rate of fire occurrence?

In closing, I want to applaud and bless the fire fighters who put their lives on the line to help the community combat the blaze. Thank you so much!

Smoke along the foothills - photo from the news.


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