One of the projected outcomes of climate change is an increased risk of wildfire. So then you’d think it should be important to promote programs that stop forest fires, like the well known Smokey the Bear. Smokey’s key message is “only you can prevent wildfires,” but there are two pieces of irony here;
- fire suppression has led to such an accumulation of woody debris (called fuel load) in North American forests, that wildfires now burn at a higher intensity and over greater areas than ever before.
- by causing climate change, we’ve made the risk of wildfire higher than ever (forests are hotter and drier than ever before), even when we aren’t directly out in nature.
Fire used to be part of the natural processes found on the landscapes of North America—both from natural ignition sources and through First Nations management practices. Fire was a renewal, releasing nutrients into the soil. Plant seeds reliant on fire could germinate. Animals that depended on those post-fire plant species can find food and their preferred habitats. Fire formed part of the landscape mosaic of different aged forest stands.
But over the last century, we started to demonize fire. It was a direct risk to life. It was a risk to our homes and livestock. It was a risk to livelihoods reliant on forests. We could no longer coexist with small or managed fires, and so we tried to eradicate it. But by suppressing this natural process, over the years we’ve made the risk of fire so much worse.
Fire researchers recommend that the way forward—to decrease our risk of more intense wildfires—is to actually reinstate traditional prescribed burning practices. Of course, that doesn’t negate our need to stop contributing to climate change (because seriously, #climateactionnow), but it’s an important step to bring natural processes back to the landscape now.
But there’s one more thing we can do to reduce fire risk—keep herbivores on the landscape, and/or reintroduce herbivores that have been lost. How the heck will that help? Well, herbivores can eat plant matter that would otherwise become part of the fuel load, and they can thin out vegetation and engineer the soil and litter layer to impede the spread of fire. That’s right, herbivores fight fires. Perhaps rather than a bear, a bison would have been a better mascot for fire prevention.