Warding Against Wildfires: How Well Does it Work?

This post is a part of a special series, written by undergraduate students in the University of Rhode Island’s Spring 2018 “Biology and Society” course. This course, taught by Dr. Lindsay Green-Gavrielidis, explores the intersection of biology and society. As part of the course, students wrote blog posts translating scientific articles related to ecology and society for a public audience.

About the Author

My name is Nathan and I am a 19-year-old junior at the University of Rhode Island. I am majoring in Marine Biology, because I really like animals and love exploring. So, a field of research in which I can discover new places and creatures made the most sense to me. I live in Massachusetts with my parents and my pet tortoise Sandy. I love sea turtles and secluded, wild places, like forests, mountains, or hidden beaches. I spend most of my time playing video games, studying, or spending time with my friends and family.

Wildfire damage to Glacier National Park Taken by Judy Hagemann

Why Are Wildfires So Common?

Well, according to A. L. Westerling and his compatriots, there are a lot more wildfires because the climate is heating up. [2] This is a natural cycle, but humans have sped it up by releasing greenhouse gases including CO2 and methane which cause the heat of the sun to be trapped within the atmosphere. This, in turn causes the air and grasses to be drier giving a greater chance for wildfires to start. All it would take is a spark.

Methods of Wildfire Prevention

There are several ways to treat an area of forest to prevent wildfires, so no, I am sorry Smokey the Bear, it is not just me who prevents wildfires. Wildfire prevention really is a huge job for a lot of people, but every little contribution that each of us make helps tremendously.

The first of these methods, thinning, is the least creative and most straight-forward. Put simply, it is cutting down the trees and plants yourself in a specific way. This pattern is designed to make sure there is not much fuel (burnable stuff) left to burn, but enough plant life to support the critters who make that place their home.

Thinning takes a lot of work and manpower. Picture by Carolyn Keeney

The second of these methods is mastication, or “eating” in which people bring in animals like moose or dear to eat the plants and lower the amount of fuel future fires can feed off of.

 

Moose and deer are often used in mastication. Picture by Robert Michalove

 

The third of these methods sounds weird at first, but it makes sense when you think about it. This method is “prescribed fire”. Yes, using fire to lower the chances of fire. Sounds kind of self-defeating does it not? Actually, it really works, because if a fire has already consumed a lot of the fuel in an area, all the future fires will have less gas to burn with. Oh, and you do not need to worry about the manually set fires going out of control; there are many ways you can set a fire that will burn itself out at a specific area. This has a bonus effect of releasing nutrients back into the soil, allowing future plants to be healthier.

 

Fire is used to prevent fires! Picture by the National Park Service. Available at: https://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/

 

Testing the Methods

However, all wildfires are not created equal. According to Jerry Williams, when forests are not managed correctly, it can cause the plants and trees to be thickly clustered giving more fuel for the fire to feed off, creating “mega fires” or fires that exceed 10,000 hectares, about 18,700 football fields, or so we thought. [3]

Anna M. G. Barros and her companions sought to discover the impacts of the government fire prevention treatments in both wild and urban areas, and what they found was shocking!

They used an incredibly complex modeling program, specifically designed to test natural disasters to study the damage these wildfires caused.

Unsurprisingly, the treatments, using the methods above, did work to lower how often wildfires broke out and this increased with treating greater areas, but the real kicker is that, no matter how long the software ran, even with the plant life growing thicker and thicker, the wildfire did not spread any farther than it had in the first of the fires! [1]

Barros and her fellow researchers speculate that this is because of the dense foliage itself; the trees are packed so tightly, air has a hard time feeding the flames. Everyone knows it takes two things to keep a fire burning, fuel, like wood and plant matter; and oxygen, usually from the open air.

Another interesting aspect that the modeling software revealed is that, while it is economically feasible to treat a normal sized area for fifty years, when you try to treat an area two or three times larger, your budget will only allow you to manage it for a little more than twenty years.

Finally, the amount of fires was decreased greatly in urban places, but the wilderness was an entirely different story, the treatments had a much smaller effect.

What Now?

Despite these facts, it still stands that these treatments really do help these places, especially places that people want to protect, or places that have historic trees and wildlife, like the Redwood National Park.

It is interesting to see how much these wildfire services help the ecosystem and humanity. So, I wonder what people can do to protect against other natural disasters that are harder to predict, like earthquakes and tsunamis?

Source Article

[1] Barros, A. M. G., A. A. Ager, M. A. Day, H. K. Preisler, T. A. Spies, E. White, R. Pabst, K. A. Olsen, E. Platt, J. D. Bailey, and J. P. Bolte. 2017. Spatiotemporal dynamics of simulated wildfire, forest management, and forest succession in central Oregon, USA. Ecology and Society 22 (1):24. https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-08917-220124

Additional References

[2] Westerling, A. L., H.G. Hidalgo, D.R. Cayan, and T.W. Swetnam. 2006. Warming and earlier spring increase Western U.S. forest wildfire activity. Science, vol. 313: 940–943, doi:10.1126/science.1128834.

 

[3]  Williams, J. 2013. Exploring the onset of high-impact mega-fires through a forest land management prism. Forest Ecology and Management, vol. 294: 4–10, doi:10.1016/j.foreco.2012.06.030.

 

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Lindsay Green-Gavrielidis

Lindsay Green-Gavrielidis

I’m a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Rhode Island, where my research focuses on applied seaweed research. Have you ever gone to the beach for a day of rest and relaxation only to find the sand smothered by a thick mat of multi-colored seaweed? These floating mats of seaweed are referred to as seaweed blooms and they can have negative impacts on the ecology and economy of coastal communities. My research aims to determine how these blooms are changing over time in response to global climate change and coastal management efforts. I am also interested in promoting seaweed aquaculture in local waters. Not only are seaweeds delicious, but they can be used to clean up excess nutrients in our coastal waters (referred to as bioremediation). When I’m not in the lab, I love to garden and travel.

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