Controlled burns are routinely conducted in forests and fields for more than one reason. Sometimes referred to as “prescribed fires,” these “safe” events help the forest and the land to thrive rather than destroying them.
The History of Controlled Fires
Indigenous people were the first Americans to make use of controlled fires. Native Americans used planned fires for various purposes, including to help “run game” (in other words, making sure the animals were where they needed them to be for hunting purposes). They also made use of this process for two reasons that we still use it for today: in order to promote a healthy ecosystem and to help maintain prairies.
What Controlled Fires Do
These planned fires are lighted under the watchful eye of professionals to ensure that the fire doesn’t get out of control. These fires can only be started under specific conditions, including waiting for the right weather to occur. Professionals start the fires from the ground or from helicopters in the air using a special firebomb known colloquially as a “ping-pong ball” that ignites slowly after it hits the ground.
In many ways, controlled fires actually assist in reducing wildfires. Some of these fires remove troublesome brush, twigs, and dead leaves from the forest floor, which are quick and easy tinder when someone carelessly tosses a cigarette out the car window.
Here’s a rundown of the benefits of planned fires. They lead to:
- a reduction in the brush, trees, and shrubbery of the forest, which makes the area less dense and gets rid of dry debris that could cause a random fire to spread.
- new growth in the forest, often getting rid of invasive species and leaving more space for native vegetation to grow.
- better habitats for some plants and animals, which sometimes rely on these fires.
Plants and Animals That Benefit from Controlled Burns
In order to get a better understanding of the need for controlled fires, here’s a much closer look at some of the benefits.
Some plants and trees need fire to be able to seed properly. When a plant’s seeds are encased in resin, they may require the heat of flames in order for them to pop open. The resulting trees will provide a convenient home for animals in need of shelter.
One of a few pine trees that requires fire to seed is the jack pine. This tree has resin-sealed seeds, which, in the absence of fire, only open up when the sun is consistently hot enough, a shaky process to rely on for survival. Michigan is home to the jack pine’s endangered tenant, the Kirtland’s warbler. While the state doesn’t perform controlled fires as much for these trees anymore (because of homes and communities that stand alongside forest lands), it has been planting seeds in order to keep the tree around.
Some plants flourish in ash-enriched soil and flower more (or even only) after a fire. The Australian grass tree is one such plant. During fires, it faces damage to its leaves and trunk but it later survives to sprout healthy flowers. These flowers will often still bloom without bushfires, but the heat from the flames pushes them to bloom faster.
There are also species of fire lilies that bloom a little over a week after forest fires. One of them, Cyrtanthus ventricosus, is found in Africa.
Not all plants have evolved to recover from wildfires, but some have adapted to surviving fire damage, re-sprouting after the flames have died. Eucalyptus, Banksia, and even some plants with bulbs underground re-sprout rapidly after a fire.
There are many species of eucalypts that have adapted traits that lead to re-sprouting in response to fire damage. One reason a eucalyptus plant may re-sprout after fire damage is that if the crown of the plant is destroyed, hormones are then activated that cause the plant to regrow.
The new sprouts that start to pop up will feed many animals such as deer and rabbits, which rely on these plants for survival. However, these aren’t the only post-fire benefits for animals.
The fires open up denser areas of the forest, which offers more habitat space to certain species. The grasslands that sprout up after trees are burned down create home space for many types of birds, including eastern meadowlarks.
While fires may seem like a bad thing (and can be when they are out of control, damaging human homes and animal habitats), they do lead to benefits and are even necessary in many situations. Controlled fires provide a safe alternative to the risks of wildfires while also helping the forest’s ecosystem to thrive.