Ecology And Environment

Forest Fires

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"Forest Fires"
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The science of ecology is a relatively new and constantly evolving discipline, which has dramatically changed our perception of the natural world. Unlike traditional science, which puts a magnifying glass onto small and specific areas, ecology examines the intricate connections that exist between the environment, the earth, and all the living things on it. Natural processes such as fire integrate with these relationships, to create a beautiful and complex system that is truly more than the sum of its parts.

Natural forest fires are an important component of a forest dominated ecosystem, acting upon, and interacting with the various components in many ways.


Cycles of various colors and flavours are found in any ecosystem, and are indeed critical components to the processes that govern these systems. An ecosystem can be thought of as a big loop, or cycle, with many smaller cycles existing within and helping to create the larger one. Every cycle is attached to a tangible component of the ecosystem. Nutrient cycling, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, and population cycles of species from the largest trees to the smallest pathogens all intertwine to create a thriving, evolving ecosystem. In its natural form, fire is, in itself, a cycle as well, affecting and being affected by various other cycles.

Fire is a critical component of both the carbon cycle and nutrient cycling, helping to enrich the soil with ash. Every individual plant takes nutrients from the soil, and requires water and sunlight to grow. There is a limitation on these resources however. Fire reduces the number of individuals, returning the nutrients that they have consumed to the soil, and opening the canopy to allow more sunlight and rainwater through.

Fire also acts as a control on populations of species when there are no other natural pressures to limit numbers. Pathogens such as funguses and boring insects like the pine beetle have little or no limitations on growth, so long as there are ample trees to infect. Fire is natures' way of imposing control on these potentially disastrous forces.

Fire is not simply a destructive external force that affects an ecosystem as it burns its way through. It is an integral process that has been adapted into the many aspects of a forest ecosystem. Fire functions as a cleansing agent, removing chocking undergrowth and returning the nutrients to the soil for the use of the dominant vegetation. In fact, some conifer species actually require fire in order for their cones to open and reproduction to occur. The water cycle can act as a trigger for this action, periodically cleaning out the undergrowth just as a farmer would weed his crops.

The effects of human forest fire management can be seen in the excessively large and uncontrollable fires that have been plaguing western North America in recent years. In attempting to eliminate a natural process, we have simply created a larger, far more intense response. Additionally, the devastating effects of the pine and spruce beetles are a direct result of fore control.

Unfortunately, the damage to the natural fire cycle has been done, and it now must be left to put itself into balance. As a result of our control, the natural cycle of clearing out undergrowth has been severely curtailed, leaving an enormous amount of fuel in the forests. This has been added to by the devastating effects of the pine beetle, resulting in millions of standing dead trees. Every natural system strives for balance, and until this inequity is corrected we must suffer the consequences of our actions.

More about this author: Tim Bird

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