What’s So Wild About Wildfire?

Have you ever been mesmerized by flames? Whether it’s a crackling campfire or the tip of a birthday candle, fire is spellbinding. But fire can also be unpredictable and dangerous. Taming fire is like taming a tiger—you always risk it going wild. Finding the balance between fire as a tool and fire as a destructive force has challenged humans for a million years.

 

Fire behaves like a living thing—moving, growing, consuming, dying—but it’s not alive. So, what is it? Fire scientists describe fire as a chemical reaction made from three things, called the “fire triangle”: fuel, heat, and oxygen. Take one of those elements away and the fire dies, a fact that firefighters use to put out fires.

Table of Contents

What good is wildfire?

Wildfire was around long before humans. Some landscapes actually thrive with wildfire. In fire-adapted forests, many trees have fire-proof bark, like a fire-fighter’s suit. Some trees—like giant sequoias—actually need the heat from fire to open cones that are glued shut. This ensures that their seeds sprout when conditions are best for growth—after fire has burned away competing trees and left sunny openings and fertile ash, ideal for seedlings to thrive. Native Americans have long used fire to clear land and promote the growth of certain plants for food and fiber.

 

So, fire has always been a natural part of healthy ecosystems, sweeping through landscapes at regular intervals like a broom cleaning up a mess. That is, until settlers came West and changed everything.

The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California began on Aug. 17, 2013
The Rim Fire in the Stanislaus National Forest in California began on Aug. 17, 2013.,U.S. Forest Service photo by Mike McMillan, Credit: Wikimedia/U.S. Department of Agriculture

Why are wildfires so destructive now?

Since the mid-1800’s, western forests have supplied the timber for cities, ships, railways, and even flumes for the gold rush. Wildfire became the enemy because it destroyed valuable trees. So, forest managers worked hard putting out wildfires to protect the trees, with Smokey Bear leading the effort. For over a hundred years—right up until the present day—techniques were developed to fight forest fires, from fire lookouts to tanker planes and smokejumpers to fire mapping from satellites.

 

Western forests continued to grow during that century, but without natural fire. They’ve become crowded with trees that aren’t fireproof, that once burned away in regular fire sweeps. Now there are too many trees and not enough water, sunlight, or nutrients, so all the trees weaken. Insects and disease kill the weak trees. The forests are filling up with unburned dead trees, fallen logs, and branches.

 

Remember, fuel is one element of the fire triangle. Now forests are full of dry fuel that burns easily when lightning strikes or a campfire spark goes astray. Heat is another element of the fire triangle. With the fuel overload, wildfires now burn hotter than they ever have. These megafires are so hot that they even burn fireproof trees and roots, and kill soil organisms. After a monster wildfire, the landscape is left so sterile and lifeless that anything struggles to grow back.

Fire aftermath in the North Cascades, WA
Fire aftermath in the North Cascades, WA, Credit: Wikimedia/Bcasterline

Megafires are increasing every year in the West. People living in wildfire country are worried for their homes and land, but powerless to help themselves. They can only wait for public forest managers to solve the problem and protect them. But forest managers are struggling to fight megafires and few have resources to do more.

What tools can fire scientists use to keep megafires under control?

Lenya Quinn-Davidson, California fire-fighter and fire ecologist, is hard at work with a solution. She’s optimistic that megafires in the West can be tamed, that the cycle of natural low-intensity fires can be brought back, and that ordinary people are part of the solution. How? By setting fire to the land with small beneficial fires, called “controlled” or “prescribed” fire, that consume the unnaturally high fuel loads before a wildfire starts.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson
Photo provided by Lenya Quinn-Davidson

As a kid, Lenya was afraid of the blazes near her rural California home. Now she walks with a drip torch through forests and fields, training citizens—ranchers, hippies, homeowners, youth, families —to safely set fire to their land. She also collaborates with Native Americans, whose leaders share their cultural burning techniques. People are now empowered—with Lenya’s vision and resolve—to protect themselves and their communities . Even as the West blazes with wildfire this fall, ordinary people are out on the land, restoring natural fire to California’s landscapes, successfully protecting their homes, and leading the movement to use prescribed fire to tame megafires throughout the West.

Sarah Jensen. March 5, 2013. Is fire a solid, a liquid, or a gas? Accessed June 10, 2022.
https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/is-fire-a-solid-a-liquid-or-a-gas/

 

Fire: lessons for kids. https://study.com/academy/lesson/facts-about-fire-lesson-for-kids.html

 

University of Toronto. “Evidence that human ancestors used fire one million years ago.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2012.

www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120402162548.htm. Accessed June 2, 2022.

 

Sempervirens Fund: Prescribed Burning in California with Lenya Quinn-Davidson. May 31, 2022.

https://sempervirens.org/webinars/prescribed-burning-in-california-with-lenya-quinn-davidson/

 

Women Fire-fighting Training Exchange. 2022. Quinn-Davidson. WTREX notes from the field.

 

“Empowerment is not just about giving people tools or training or inspiration—it’s about helping them understand where their powers lie, and how they can use them to best effect change.”

 

University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources. Jeannette Warnert. August 8, 2018.

 

Blog: The California fires situation is concerning, but not hopeless. https://ucanr.edu/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=27924

Contributors

  • Jeanne Panek, Ph.D.
    Jeanne Panek is a research ecologist, nature adventure writer, and wilderness explorer. Her favorite part of science is the field work: radio-tracking jaguars in Peru, collecting clouds atop an Adirondack mountain, climbing trees in Yosemite to look for pollution injury. While doing science, she’s been charged by a mountain lion and piranha have nibbled her toes. In her free time, she searches for lost people in the mountains of California with her search-and-rescue team, plays mandolin and Minecraft. Jeanne believes the natural world is as magical as Hogwarts. She writes for Smore because she’s passionate about connecting kids with nature.

Copyright @smorescience. All rights reserved. Do not copy, cite, publish, or distribute this content without permission.


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