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November 8, 2021

Forest Fires: unlikely arsons and renewal

Forest Fires: unlikely arsons and renewal

Massive forest fires have been going on for hundreds of years. Long before man inhabited the regions of the North-Western United States fires have burned millions of acres yearly, and the same is true for many other regions of the world, especially Canada and Australia, which like America, are relatively newly inhabited. Remarkably, and surprisingly under-reported, 2021 fires in Russia’s uninhabited Siberian region burned more acres of land than all the fires in the world combined, yet few are aware of these fires.[1] Obviously, many fires are “natural” fires igniting from lightening and even fire-carrying birds[2]

Whether it is floods or drought, “Climate Change” is the bad guy; and it may be, but evidence is very inconclusive. For example: a study by Earth Island Institute, from 1984 to 2019, using computerized imaging, and satellite mapping, says that destructive fires increased in acreage from 1984-1991, but have remained stable from 1991- 2019, a definite argument against global warming as the cause of fires.[3]

There is ample evidence of massive fires occurring centuries ago throughout the world. These fires started by lightening, and in Australia by birds who carry flaming twigs in their beaks or talons from an existing fire to start a new fire in order to scare snakes, rodents, and insects from their dwellings to feast upon. This was known to the Aboriginals 42,000 years ago and is only recently noted by Western scientists.[4]

Some forest systems need fires to seed future trees and rid the forest of evasive species. The giant Sequoias and Redwoods in the Northwestern United States, for example, seed via pinecones that will not open and burst out their seeds without the heat of fire. That is why brush fires are essential in these regions for without indigenous saplings invasive species would take over and eventually smother out the Redwood and Sequia forests.

Fire is also required for some animal and bird species too: “Many species actually require fire. Heat from the flames can stimulate some fungi, like morel mushrooms, to release spores. Certain plants will seed only after a blaze, and some animals, such as mule deer and black-backed woodpeckers, require burned areas to both eat and nest. Without fire, those organisms can’t reproduce—and anything that depends on them will be affected”[5]

Controlling fires through “backburning” was known to Native American Indians for many centuries and scoffed at by modern firefighters; but not anymore. Now modern fighters employ Native Americans to share their knowledge of backburning to keep forests healthy and of manageable size through conscious fire management to assure the right balance of charred and green areas and that the necessary heat is generated in major forests to open the cones of mature seeds to assure they grow new saplings.

The bark of Giant Redwoods and Sequoias can be as much as two feet thick and is fire retardant. It can withstand brush fires burning throughout their habitats whether they are the result of nature or induced “backburning.”.

“Many of the old-growth forests we know and love in the Pacific Northwest were born of large and severe fires centuries ago,” says Brian Harvey, a wildfire ecologist at the University of Washington, Seattle. The mosaic of burned and unburned areas left after a fire can, for example, provide valuable “habitat for the entire suite of [bird] species that evolved in western North America,” says Saab, who studies the effects of fire on birds. The black-backed woodpecker, for instance, feasts on the eggs that beetles lay on charred trees, and the white-headed woodpecker likes to nest in newly opened areas. Fire also releases soil nutrients that can encourage the growth of shrubs that attract insects and other invertebrates that birds such as the dusky flycatcher and mountain bluebird find tasty.”[6]

“In New Mexico, researchers are examining whether smoke from the fires might have played a role in the unusual deaths of thousands of birds found scattered on the ground. The birds might have developed respiratory infections because of the smoke, researchers say, or abandoned feeding grounds before they had a chance to store up enough fuel for their migration,” says Vicki Saab of the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.

Moreover, it is known that many birds will not re-inhabit a region that is very large after a fire because of the nearby absence of adjacent trees. Even years after the 2015 fires in the Northwestern United States migratory and other birds have yet to return to their former homes and nesting regions, causing scientist to wonder if they ever will.

While fire may benefit some species, overall, it is a disaster for most forest dwelling animals and even birds. Whether they run or hide, their choices are not good. Smaller animals often try to climb trees resulting in burnt paws or being trapped, rodents will hide under rocks or logs or burrow into the ground. Temperatures were taken under logs that reached 1200 degrees Fahrenheit and even 2 inches below the soil the temperatures were 200 degrees Fahrenheit. In large fires even birds die in massive numbers as the smoke deteriorates their lungs as they fly miles to escape. If there is water around, large, and small animals will often find salvation in rivers and lakes.

I remember a fire in Los Angele’s Topanga canyon in the 70s when a surfer friend of mine was living there and left his home and jumped into the ocean to escape the flames. He said large number of deer were doing the same thing. In Lake Tahoe’s recent fire bear, elk, and deer “jumped in the lake” and didn’t have to be told.

Others satisfy their appetite capitalizing on the chaos of fires. “Fires can benefit predators that prey on these fleeing animals. Bears, raccoons, and raptors, for instance, have been seen hunting creatures trying to escape the flames.” [7]

Firemen do not look after the wildlife as they prioritize properties and protecting people’s lives. There are agencies the fire department recommends calling for animals or pets such as “Gold Country Wildlife Rescue” or “Sierra Wildlife Rescue.”. said Denise Upton, Animal Care Director at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care. “They can’t stop what they’re doing to help the wildlife.”

In addition to fires disrupting the habitat of wildlife, there is the heavy equipment digging fire lines, bright lights, thousands of firemen and helicopters bombing areas with flame retardant, disrupting animal habitat, and causing disorientation to the wildlife.

Fires in California, Washington, and Oregon have burned approximate six million acres this year. Some of these fires were very large, ranging from 200,000-to almost one million acres. At least 35 human lives have been lost and hundreds of structures destroyed. The cost on wildlife is not yet clear but it is feared it will be substantial.

“Scientists don’t have any good estimates on the number of animals that die in wildfires each year. But there are no documented cases of fires—even the really severe ones—wiping out entire populations or species.”

“Ecologists fear the wildfires also could inflict lasting damage on species and ecosystems. In particular, they worry the loss of habitat could imperil species with small populations or restricted ranges, and that incinerated ecosystems will fail to rebound in a warming climate, leading to permanent landscape changes. “We are in unchartered territory here, and we just don’t know how resilient species and ecosystems will be to wildfires of the magnitude, frequency, and intensity that we are currently experiencing in the U.S. West,” says S. Maleeka Patricio Sullivan, an ecologist at the Ohio State University, Columbus.”

Plants with small ranges that grow in areas that have burned—such as the Coulter pine in California—might also face trouble, says Camille Stevens-Roman, a fire ecologist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. “California especially has a lot of endemic plant species that could be very much impacted,” she says. [8]

Although the negative aspect of fires on growth outweigh the benefits, we should be aware that there are some benefits that come with fire. “A moderate level of fire in areas where it naturally occurs may also increase the “patchiness” of forests and create a wider variety of microhabitats, from open meadows to re-growing forest, research shows. Having a diversity of biomes  supports multiple species of animals and the ecosystem as a whole.

“Wild areas like forests and prairies naturally grow and change in composition over time. A year-old forest will have a different set of plants and animals living in it than a forest that’s 40 years old. A disturbance like a wildfire can serve as a reset button, letting an old forest be born again, said Patricia Kennedy, a wildlife biologist at Oregon State University in 2014. And “a lot of species require that reset.”

The question of regeneration is a difficult one: “Already, some ecosystems in North America that have had frequent or intense burns are not regenerating. In some places, such as the sagebrush ecosystem of the Great Basin west of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range and forests in the Klamath Mountains along the California-Oregon border, invasive shrubs or grasses appear to have taken over. Because the invaders burn frequently, they appear to be preventing seedlings from maturing. “When trees fail to regenerate, then we get into a feedback cycle that makes it very difficult in the long term to get back to a forest,” says Víctor Resco de Dios, a forest scientist at Southwest University of Science and Technology in China.

It’s still not clear whether this year’s West Coast fires are worse than what the region might have experienced before humans began to suppress fire nearly 100 years ago. But some fire experts argue that recent fires have left ever larger patches of forest that have burned with “high severity,” imperiling recovery. These spots, often larger than 400 hectares (about 1200 acres), may be too big to be reseeded by adjacent intact trees and too extensive to attract wildlife.

“Exactly what happens after a fire occurs depends on the landscape, the severity of the fire, and the species involved. But the event always sparks a succession of changes as plants, microbes, fungi, and other organisms recolonize the burned land. As trees and plants age, light and other features change—and the composition of creatures in the area changes in response.

Streams and other water bodies that flow through a burned area can also change. Water flow, turbidity, chemistry, and structure can be altered. Fish may temporarily move away. And there can be short-term die-offs among aquatic invertebrates, which can affect animals on land.

“The water and the land are highly connected,” says  Mazeika Sullivan of the Ohio State University said in a 2014 interview. “Fire is a natural part of these landscapes.”

We are custodians of our environment and many of us are being responsible citizens by playing our part and respecting everyone else. Some are changing their diet to consume less animal products and use less leather in their cars and clothing. Since raising animals requires clearing large amounts of land for them to graze and scant water resources for their consumption, our diet can play a vital role in protecting the planet.

It is disingenuous to push a diet on anyone, particularly vegan or vegetarian diets which are unhealthy for many people, but there is a point to their argument that meat consumption is a direct cause to global warming. The agenda of the vegans, and vegetarians to make everyone like them is counter-productive. It causes blowback and people who are borderline will be pushed in the opposite direction their adversaries wish them to go. But we cannot ignore the truth of the diet enthusiasts argument altogether. We can consume less meat, and many are doing that now, and that is better for our health and the planet. Being “mostly” vegan or vegetarian may be the healthiest way to go.

We can be active in reforestation and use less wood, as well. Our dependence on fossil fuels can be lessened by the use of fuel efficient vehicles or electric or hybrid cars. Of course, industry needs to play their part. Without industry becoming more conscious, they will continue to be a major contributor to global warming.

Many concerns have been raised regarding how food and goods are delivered to the consumer. Packaging requires energy to produce and destroy and raw materials. We must turn to reusable packaging. I wrote an article for “Elephant” a few years back, “For Love of Plastic” to demonstrate the good side of plastic. Plastic can be reused endlessly. During a two year stint in India and Nepal, I diligently washed the inside and dried my plastic bags and reused a handful of bags for two years. We can do this here in the United States and elsewhere throughout the world. This method is far more ecologically sound than the use of paper bags which are made from trees.

If consumers played their part by demanding it, many products now in plastic or glass, like milk and yogurt could be made available in bulk just as water is available for consumers who bring their own containers to refill. In India and Nepal both yogurt and milk are available this way and the region is more populated than the USA. If a poor country can do this, why can’t we?

It is a challenge to be conscious of how we use the environment when almost everything that is available is available for the “sake of convenience.” It is awkward to go against the flow and try to use less containers and avoid unnecessary foods and convenience items altogether. But, by challenging ourselves to do so, we are making ourselves more sensitive to our own needs in the process and discovering how to appreciate our foods more and how making better use of the items we have can be more rewarding than replacing them on a whim.

Living like the poor is not only for the poor; but the rich as well. We are a “consumer society” and our proclivity to consume eats away at our well-being and distracts from who we are. This author has found more joy in poor communities during two decades in Nepal and India than in the West by far. The people in these very poor communities value what little they have as we do our abundance and are more connected with each other and nature. And, by the way, I never heard of a forest fire in Nepal or India during my entire stay in these countries.

The Himalayan regions of Nepal and North India are heavily forested up to about 12,000 feet. These areas are also populated. I do not know, but perhaps it is because these areas are populated fires that do start are more likely to be put out quickly. If so, this could be a cue for us to have monitoring systems like we do for earthquakes to alert us to fires while they are small and containable. Such a system might mimic the effect of having people spread throughout a region and provide early warning.

If we wish to be happier people we can have what we need but we don’t have to have everything we want. A well-to-do person who lives as if of little means will know happiness inside, where it counts and know a happiness that does not have to be replenished. If we cannot find it within ourselves to protect the planet for the planet’s sake, how can we to find it for our own?

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[1] https://www.google.com/search?q=siberia+fires+burn+more+than+all+fires+in+world+combined&oq=siberia+fires+burn+more+than+all+fires+in+world+combined&aqs=chrome..69i57j33i22i29i30.25799j0j15&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

[2] Australia’s “Fire-hawks”

[3]https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/wildfires-birds-animals-australia

Reported in “Diversity” Magazine: https://www.science.org/content/article/wildfires-continue-western-united-states-biologists-fear-vulnerable-species

[4] Australia’s indigenous peoples have long observed “fire hawks” spreading wildfires throughout the country’s tropical

[5]

https://www.science.org/content/article/wildfires-continue-western-united-states-biologists-fear-vulnerable-species

[7] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/150914-animals-wildlife-wildfires-nation-california-science

[8] https://www.science.org/content/article/wildfires-continue-western-united-states-biologists-fear-vulnerable-species

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