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Phoenix Forward

Are wildfires good for the environment?

Forest wildfires

Close to 8 million acres of forests and grasslands in the United States went up in flames this year, causing reason for concern about wildfires.

Contrary to what many people believe, however, wildfires have a positive impact on the environment, according to Barbara Zorn-Arnold, a research biologist and instructor in the environmental studies program at University of Phoenix Chicago Campus.

When a fire burns in nature, although it causes short-term problems such as smoke, the long-term results on the ecosystem are very good, she says.

“What scientists have learned over the last few decades is that fires increase plant and animal diversity,” she explains, “because during a wildfire, nutrients are released into the soil, which is followed by a flush of new plant growth after the fire.”

New plants help clean the air by absorbing carbon dioxide — one of the root causes of global warming — and releasing oxygen, Zorn-Arnold notes, resulting in cleaner air.

By trying to protect ecosystems from fire, we’ve actually ended up endangering them.

In fact, many ecosystems require fires to restore their balance. In recent years, scientists discovered that Ponderosa pines in the Pacific Northwest, for example, need fire to germinate their seeds and stimulate growth.

Up until a fire in Yellowstone National Park in 1988, it was believed that fire was harmful to the environment and could potentially cause deforestation. “As a result of this thinking, U.S. government agencies suppressed forest fires for years, which led to negative consequences for many systems,” Zorn-Arnold says.

When fire is blocked from a region for too long — meaning firefighters put out the flames that occur naturally from lightning strikes or accidentally from humans — it causes forested regions and grasslands to become overly choked with trees and underbrush.

Additionally, Zorn-Arnold explains, when fire is stifled, it allows invasive species to take over and prevents indigenous plants from growing. “By trying to protect ecosystems from fire, we’ve actually ended up endangering them,” she says.

Consequently, when a fire occurs in a region where there has not been a blaze for a long time, the fire may burn too hot and out of control because of all the crowded underbrush and actually kill the trees rather than generate new life.

It’s very expensive to fight out-of-control wildfires and can lead to property loss.

The solution “is to have controlled burns, which are managed by agencies in forests and grasslands every few years, depending on what’s required in each individual ecosystem, to ‘decrease the load,’” Zorn-Arnold says.

“Controlled burns have been going on across the country for years,” she continues, “but because of budget cuts, there are still too many regions that haven’t had a fire in years. And when you add the drought, these areas are like a tinderbox.

“With 8 million acres being burned,” she adds, “we need to take a step back and see what role we’ve played in creating these massive fires — and what we need to do in order to help control them so they are beneficial for the ecosystem and for humans.”