Updated: Sep 7, 2021
Piyush Narnoli and Vidhi Tomar Third year, B.A. (H) English, Shaheed Bhagat Singh College
Fire ecology explores the interaction between fire and the surrounding environment, including both the biotic as well as abiotic components. Fire ecologists recognize that fire is a natural process that is often constitutive to the life history of flora and fauna in the ecosystem. Periodical fires are a normal component of the lifecycle of many ecosystems, aiding in the continued survival of some of the plant species. For instance, some tree cones need to be heated prior to their opening and release of seeds and hence depend on the wildfires to pass through a normal life cycle. Moreover, the wildfires even play a poignant role in maintaining the health of ecosystem by engulfing the deleterious insects and diseases detrimental to the growth of flora, substituting shrubs and under-bushes with new grasses, herbs and shrubs which provide food and habitat for the fauna and also by clearing up the debris on the forest floor, thereby vitalizing the soil with nutrients and allowing the sunlight to penetrate to the ground.
A ‘fire regime’ refers to the general pattern of a wildfire’s natural occurrence in a particular ecosystem, which include fire frequency, intensity, size, pattern, season and severity. However, the recent trends in this pattern suggest a complete cataclysm with the advent of frequent and extreme wildfires around the world, which have completely upset cyclic fire regimes. For instance, the wildfires in California in 2017-18, Portugal in 2017, Greece in 2018, Australia in 2019-20 and the ones in Greece in August 2021, point to a complete subversion in the dynamics of fire ecology. Climate change, in addition to other human induced factors, is leading to wildfires that, instead of supplementing the biodiversity, are threatening to destroy it! In December 2020, the IUCN World Heritage Outlook 3 cited climate change as the biggest threat to the natural world heritage globally. In addition, several attribution studies demonstrate that climate change is a key factor contributing to the severity and extent of the recent large scale fire incidents. For example, estimates suggest that climate change made the extreme 2019-20 Australian bushfire season 30 percent more likely. Moreover, the ongoing increase in fire activity in Western US and trends which signal more severe fires in the Southwest appear to be fueled by an increase in susceptibility to burning due to ‘biomass dryness.’
However, we cannot direct the blame to climate change only; human actions and indulgences equally account for the cause and the persisting effects. Wildland-Urban Interference, i.e., the proximity of the houses near or within vegetated areas such as forests is an emerging trend which aptly explains the ignorance and carelessness apparent in the increasing human activity in planning settlements, which is tantamount to exploitation of the wild. The aggressive fire suppression policies over much of the 20th century have attempted to exclude fire from the ecosystems where it has been a fundamental part of the landscape rejuvenation cycle. As a result, it has led to an excessive build-up of fuels, i.e., vegetation that is susceptible to burning, and then when the favorable conditions for the fire conglomerate (dry vegetation, soaring temperature and gusty winds), those fires are more severe and unstoppable, as they surpass any attempts at suppression. The attempts to 100 percent fire suppression policies in the US and elsewhere have resulted in an utterly dismal scenario and a worsening of the situation. Hence, it becomes imperative on our part to acknowledge the misconception that we can completely eliminate fire from the landscape. As a civilization, we need to comprehend that we live on a flammable planet where fire has been manicuring ecosystems for 400 million years. It is logistically infeasible and ecologically inappropriate to reduce the flammability of the wildland vegetation that is susceptible to fire.
Many USDA Forest Services employees are gradually shifting from the concept of ‘fire seasons’ to ‘fire year’ as wildfire has transmuted into year-round phenomenon for much of the United States. What was once a four-month fire season now lasts for 6-8 months. Aggravating the conditions are the extended drought seasons, increased tree mortality and invasive species such as cheat grass that permit fire to ignite and spread readily.
Notably, the wildfire risk depends on the complex interaction between temperature, soil, moisture and the presence of trees, shrubs and other potential fuels. Thus, a clamant attention must be cast over the prevailing risk, keeping in cognizance the paramountcy of the wildfires as an agent of renewal and change. The evolving human strategies in the quest to compete with nature and its organic cycles have evidently proven futile, thereby stressing upon the untamable might of the natural phenomena. A slight disruption or any intervention in the fire ecology leads to the imbalance of the entire fire regime apparent in the recent wildfires whose accountability is to be accredited solely to the humans.
On a concluding note, it becomes worth mentioning in the light of the topical concern that an appropriation in human psyche and behavioral pattern is the need of the hour in order to curtail this perturbing global issue. The next responsibility hovering over all of humanity is the question of how to build resilience. Reduction of likelihood and impacts of wildfires could be done by increasing the space between structures and nearby trees and bushes and clearing space between neighboring houses, discouraging developments near fire-prone forests through smart zoning rules, incorporating fire-resistant design features and materials in buildings, removing fuels, such as dead trees from forests that are at risk, increasing resources allocated to firefighting and fire prevention and developing recovery plans before a fire hits, and implementing plans quickly after a fire to reduce erosion, limit flooding, and minimize habitat damage.