Fires of Nature

TR Staff
Staff Writer

By Chelsey Olauson
Stepping out of the state fleet school vans that VCSU uses to transport students on field trips is always a relief. Those vans can fit up to fifteen people, and fifteen college students can get a little rambunctious, although during this trip, the older students claimed the small van, and I was lucky enough to slip into an open seat.
What few students rode in that van were a merry bunch. We were off to see not the wizard- that was last week at VCHS- but Teddy Roosevelt National Park, where the buffalo and bighorn sheep roam. I was most excited to see the plants, and I was not disappointed.
The park is a massive, unique place in all its components, and we students had travelled there to see and discuss the wonderful plant diversity that differed so from here at home, which is what we were learning about. In the plant world, there are many types of fire: There are the fires of decay- a phrase that James Rollins uses in his book Amazonia- that includes decomposition, especially of plant matter.
There are also fires in the literal sense: Wildfires. Certain plants have much more available biomass, such as woody-stemmed plants like the sagebrushes the VCSU class witnessed in western North Dakota. An increase in woody-stemmed plants increases available biomass that can act as fuel for fires when it is dried out. Generally, as you travel west, regional diversity increases because of the changing altitudes. However, as anyone who has seen the prairies of the West can say, it looks pretty sparse. That is because the diversity and abundance of species decreases at any given point.
Even though fire is considered a natural disturbance, as Professor Casey Williams likes to call it, fires are catastrophically detrimental to development, and nowhere is this more evident than in California.
Currently, two fires continue to burn: The Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire.
Professor Lauren Dennhardt, who teaches Restoration Ecology at VCSU, displayed an interesting set of information on this situation: California’s changing conditions created these monster fires. For whatever reason, the temperature in that state is warmer than average, thereby drying out its fuel: The plants. Precipitation has also decreased recently. The last part of the wildfires’ severity is the increase in available fuel as trees and the reluctance of land managers to use fire as a management tool, understandably, because humans now live much closer to the areas where wildfires historically occurred. Periodic small fires are a natural prevention to huge, landscape-destroying fires.
However, this is a sticky situation because of human development. Where there are houses, land managers cannot allow fires to burn, which builds up available fuel and creates the possibility for an enormous fire in the future.
Restoration ecologists don’t have an answer to this problem.
What ecologists do know is how to set controlled burns to prevent buildups like these from happening, and another generous portion of human-sponsored ecology is the control of fires that begin as a result of natural causes. Wildland firefighters are a unique, tough group of individuals, and through the Bureau of Land Management, eight teams comprised of veterans fight wildfires. Interestingly enough, veterans are one group of individuals that take on this dangerous job, but another is… prisoners, says Dr. Dennhardt.
Inmates are trained, paid, and can have reduced sentences if they participate in this voluntary program, a unique solution to the deficit of firefighters.
In the world of the wild, disturbances are natural, and part of a process that occurred before time was recorded: Perhaps even before humans were alive. Fire is a natural ecological disturbance.