Adeela Hameed

Importance of Wildfires: An Ecological Perspective

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Pristine Forest Ecosystem on the Way to Mt. Mahadev. Picture Credits: Kashif Farooq Bhat

Forests are the underappreciated soldiers of civilization. With diverse habitats canopied by vast expanses of green, rust and brown, forests are resources that cultivate air, water and soil for planet Earth. Without these green lungs, habitation would surely be impossible.

Apart from deforestation, the biggest challenge in protecting pristine forest ecosystems is combating wildfires. Last year’s Australia was an instance of an atrocious forest fire. The propelled smoke reached upper parts of our atmosphere and the devastation could be seen from space. A multi-diverse domain was lost, flora and fauna turned to ash, and millions of hectares of land were rendered barren, devoid of any cover. Abrupt change in climate, the Australian wildfire brought in its wake, was even more demanding, scurrying nations around the region to invest in mitigation measures, all to no avail. The plunder could also be experienced way north of the continent with extreme temperature changes bringing in weather anomalies.

Although the fire raged and ravaged a huge chunk of the small country, there are a number of factors, however, that make wildfires ecologically important. Nonetheless, forest fires occurring at such a large scale and over so long a time-period are more deadly than beneficial.

Let’s examine reasons that make wildfires important to an ecosystem.

To subdue the organic load

Wildfires, deliberately caused by humans as a means to strengthen soil chemistry and improve life-cycles of forest inhabitants particularly small shrubs and herbivores, are called wildland fires. These are restrained to a particular location where organic matter debris has increased manifold,  hindering natural plant growth by making nutrients present in the soil inaccessible. So, a specific region is chosen to set ablaze to take care of this extra organic matter. When the burn is complete, sunlight and rains reach the deepest part of a forest and help in regeneration. Wild herbivores, that mostly survive on small herbs and shrubs, can also make use of this fresh produce and rely on it for carrying out their biological cycles.

To prevent larger forest fires

Wildland fires, although mostly artificial forms of forest fires, can begin naturally as well. Lightning occurrences during dry spells, in summers or fall, are responsible for small wildfires in temperate forests. An example would be the Himalayan forest ecosystem in Kashmir valley. To prevent larger, more damaging forest fires, at times a small fire to wipe out dry organic debris strewn on the forest floor is needed. This short range fire cleans up the top layer of the soil in these forests, making sure no fuel is available for any incidental blaze in the future.

To clear invasive species

In locations where wildfires are a common occurrence or happen once a season, the region’s biodiversity may be assumed to have developed either a level of tolerance or flight mechanism to fight off effects of the blaze. However, at times an invasive, non-local, harmful species grows in an area which in the long run, might negatively affect the endemic (local) species. To counteract a fire might not be a mechanism well developed in that species, given it was an uninvited guest in the first place and knows too little of its surroundings. So, a wildland fire has the capacity to clear out such species in order to protect the natural system of a specific forest. Again, the causal agent might be man-made or natural. Nonetheless, the competition for resources is greatly reduced.

Sometimes a forest fire is nature’s way of retaliation towards extreme temperature changes and unwanted fluctuations inside a forest ecosystem, to reduce competition for scarce resources, or even equalize populations. It may seem severe but fire is one of the best aspects of nature. With fire, the biosphere is stabilized and maintained thus, increasing productivity and efficiency of any ecosystem. So there are two sides to every event, properly thought of and carefully examined by nature. It is ignorance to state otherwise.

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