After the fires in Northern California, many in the region have been concerned for their health. But what has been discussed less is the impact on the ecosystems caught in the fire.
What may not be apparent is that fires are a part of the natural ecosystem in Northern California, but their devastating effects are unnatural in this case. Fires occur in Northern California every few years, and the ecosystem will rebuild itself afterward. Urban areas have played a part in how quickly ecosystems are able to bounce back.
Mills College Biology Professor Elisabeth Wade points out that people are devastated, but forget to consider that what is unnatural are our civilizations, not the fires themselves.
“People will be surprised, nature comes back pretty quick,” Wade said.
What made this fire different that other wildfires was that it occurred in a heavily populated area. The most heavily populated areas suffered the loss of homes, schools, and businesses.
Mills College Biology Professor Sarah Swope details why this fire may have burned more heavily than others in the past.
“A lot of ecosystems have evolved to burn every three to ten years, but when we start developing, we suppress fires, we don’t let them burn, we get all this fuel buildup, so when a fire does come through it has a lot more fuel so it burns a lot hotter a lot faster and is a lot more destructive,” Swope said. “Centuries of fire suppression has led to build up of fuel.”
Another factor affecting the build-up of fuel is an invasive disease from Europe. Sudden Oak Death is a disease that kills oak trees but leaves them standing. This spread of disease increased the amount of dead plants that served as fuel for the fire, thus causing the fire to spread across the landscape much more quickly.
“The best thing one can do is stay out of nature’s way,” Swope said.
According to Swope, allowing the ecosystem to heal itself will be the most effective remedy.
“Invasive plants will outcompete California native plants and we do need to be worried about that,” Swope said. “Intervene in a way that allows natural processes to run their course. Remove any invasive plants that are starting to take over.”
Another method to better understand the circumstances around fires is to actively collect data. Since the climate is continuing to change more fires can be expected.
“Having a good understanding of how ecosystems recover or if they don’t recover will actually help us to do a better job with conservation,” Swope said.
Acknowledging the capacity and power of wildfires is important for how individuals understand their lack of control. Fires need to burn, and it is only a matter of when and where. Fire safety should be equally urged in the way that fire prevention is. NPR reports that fire experts have been employing the strategy of controlled fires. The implementation of controlled fires is another way that experts hope to combat the fires from reaching the same level of damage as the fires in Northern California.