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Ecological Effects of Fire Suppression In

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My summer occupation in 2005 was assisting the Forestry Department with whatever task was at the top of our priority list for a particular week. This may have included anything from planting prairie, to landscaping work at Woodpecker Lodge. The majority of our time was spent clearing remnant prairies of shrubs and non-native trees, as well as inserting fire breaks into sections of forest within the parks. In short a lot of my work this summer was done in preparation for a lengthy process of re introducing prescribed fires to these areas in order to attempt to restore them to their original state.

All summer I worked side by side with an individual who had recently graduated from with the same degree that I have chosen to pursue. Through his knowledge of native vegetation, and his personal experience on varying burn crews, I became increasingly interested in learning more and more about prescribed burning and wildland fires. I've even gotten so infatuated with wildland fires that I've chosen that as my career path after graduation. My ideal occupation would be a smoke jumper or a hot shot, elite firefighters from the western United States where wildland fires can become potentially dangerous.

When presented this assignment I chose to write about articles that dealt with wildland fires. The articles that I have chosen address problems that have risen with the suppression of fires over the last 200 years. The articles all focus on more or less the same basic ideas: #1, fire suppression is a problem, #2 here's why it is a problem, #3, this is what can be done to remedy the problem.


All of the authors addressed these questions in one way or another. The majority of the time addressing the question was as easy as saying: "here's the problem, lets take a look at some situations where they're not having this problem". By seeing how successful fire plans have been working for certain fire managers, the authors were able to draw conclusions about what needs to be done. Also by comparing the biological conditions of the two different environments it's possible to tell which situation supports optimal growing conditions.

I remember as a child I would see commercials of a cute cartoon bear stating, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires." This has become a slogan that I have personally not heard so often anymore. It's possible that this is a result of someone important out there realizing that relatively frequent low-severity fires promote healthy ecosystems that are more resistant to large scale, uncontrollable fires (Hessburg, P. F., Agee, J. K., Franklin, J. F., 2005).

We all agree that fire suppression is a problem right? So why was fire suppression such a large scale practice for such a long period of time? As Hessburg (2005) reported, "Domestic livestock and wild ungulate grazing, road and rail construction, grassland conversion to agriculture, urbanization, and rural development all contributed to the direct or indirect exclusion of fires" (p. 120). In short, fire suppression was something that was done as a result of colonization in general. It wasn't until recently (last 20 years) that we realized what detrimental effect fire suppression has had on the landscape of the United States.

As Wuerthner (2002) stated, "Fire acts like a wolf on a deer herd- thinning forests and creating healthier timber stands. Because most fires dance and leap across the landscape, they create a random burn pattern of varying intensity and size favoring different species and age classes, increasing biodiversity and ecosystem stability. The resulting mosaic also creates natural firebreaks that influence future fires, as recently burned areas are less likely to burn again" (p. 19).

In examination of how bad it has really become you needn't look any farther than the Cerro Grande fire which occurred May 4, 2000. This fire was originally ignited as a prescribed fire with the intension of burning only nine hundred acres. Because of environmental conditions and dense forest at the seedling and sapling stage, the fire became uncontrollable. The fire eventually scorched 48,000 acres, ruined 235 homes, caused the evacuation of 18,000 civilians, and cost approximately one billion dollars in damages (Wise, & Freitag, 2002).

Fire suppression has made conditions so bad that even now when trying to conduct prescribed burns to remedy the problem, unless environmental conditions are near perfect, things can get out of hand. It's nearly come to the point where fire managers are hesitant to burn. After all, there are no penalties for neglecting to ignite a prescribed fire, the conditions will simply worsen and will go unnoticed until that particular fire manager has moved onto their next assignment. On the other hand, igniting a fire that crosses boundaries and becomes uncontrollable will gain the attention of the entire country, and carries with it the risk of reprimand or even worse (Wise et al., 2002).


It's not necessary to be a wildlife biologist to realize that current conditions in our forests are unhealthy. Anyone who's taken a short hike through the woods will shortly realize that it's nearly impossible to maneuver through the saplings and shrubs that have taken over our forests and timber areas. Conditions didn't always exist in this manner. Before European settlement the Midwest was characterized by a mixture of prairies and savannahs, while the dry forest environments were a mixture of Douglas-fir, grand fir, and white fir. These areas were characteristically burned by frequent low and mixed-severity fires which occur every 1-25 years where less than 20% of basal area was killed. These fires existed as a result of natural ignitions from lightning, or intentional aboriginal burning (Hessburg et al. 2005).

In its natural state wildland fires have an elevating effect on tree crown bases and only consume seedlings, saplings, pole-sized trees, and dead and fallen material on the forest floor (Hessburg et al., 2005) The flames in these fires rarely exceeded two meters in height and almost never reached the canopy. With the suppression of fire, recent fires have had a devastating effect on forests because of the different levels of shrubs and saplings. These juveniles that would normally be killed off by reoccurring fires now act as a ladder for flames to reach the upper canopy. The result is a fire that will kill everything in its path.

As stated by Wise (2002), "Researchers have documented the benefits of fire as a resource management tool. The benefits of fire use include reduction of ground fuel loading; disposal of slash; preparation



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