How Should We Think of Wildfire?

If a familiar landscape burns in a wildfire should we be upset?  Maybe.   It depends on what kind of vegetation burned, the fuels, and weather conditions at the time of the fire.   The fire may be of over-all benefit to the local ecology, or may be largely destructive.    Within the perimeter of any one fire, one can see a range of effects.  Once a fire burns, changes are set in motion that continue for a very long time. Even fires that kill all of the trees within an area can bring about new habitats that are ideal for some plants and animals.  The only real constant is that fire is inevitable, especially in places that alternate between being wet and dry.   In attempting to avoid fire altogether, we are reaping a disproportionate number of very large, very hot fires.  Disaster occurs when we place ourselves or our homes in the path of conflagration.   As humans there are times when we should aggressively suppress fires, and times when it would be better to allow them to burn, at least to some pre-determined point.  


  • The old fire prevention slogan "green forests offer more" is not accurate.  From an ecological point of view "multicolored forests offer more".  Table Mountain fire of 2012 viewed from the air in 2013, Cle Elum Ranger District of Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA.
  • When fire burns hot over a large area, it can kill all of the trees, leaving a forest less diverse than it was before.   Most tree species will have difficulty making a comeback, because of the long distance from the nearest seed source.  Lodgepole pine with it's serotinous cones that open at the time of a fire will most likely dominate the future forest here.  Aerial view of Table Mountain Fire- October 2012  Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA
  • Holes burned in a forest may not be pretty, but they have a function in adding ecological diversity.  A different mix of plants and animals will live in the burned areas.  Also, for a time the burned patches will be places where fire does not spread, as all that readily burns has been burned.  Small and medium size fires are critical to preventing large fires.  Peavine Fire of 2012 as seen from the air in 2013.   Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, WA