FIRE & ASH

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A bushfire can be a catastrophic disaster, putting human and animal lives at risk. But what do we know about fires and how do they affect us and the environment? This is an essay I did at university a few years ago and is based around bushfires in Western Australia but can be adopted for any region. I hope it provides you with helpful information about bushfires. Let me know what you think.

Hope the formatting is ok, I did my best with Booksie's formatting abilities.

Special thanks go to Jen aka l3ubbles for providing the pictures.

Introduction

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Fire is a major factor in our ecosystem, both good and bad, that is influenced by climate. It can cause CO2 to have a direct effect on vegetation, and land use, and in turn, affect landscape patterns and processes. Fire in the Earth’s ecosystems is a natural occurrence that is vital in keeping the flow of natural cycles healthy and efficient. Natural causes of bush fires has played a significant role in shaping Western Australian ecosystems, such as certain plant life being more susceptible to harsh, scorching conditions. Some of the animal life present today were also influenced by fire, for example the animals that were able to escape a fire and survive, lived and reproduced successfully and became adapted to these harsher environmental conditions, hence, survival of the fittest (Lavorel, 2002).

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However, the natural occurrences of fires in ecosystems can lead to devastating effects of the ecosystem and the close-by communities. The aftermath of a bushfire on any local community is often immeasurable, leaving people with nothing but black ash. For this reason, we need to enforce the benefits of integrating a ‘prescribed burning’ approach in our community, especially in Western Australia, where the land is fuel embedded during the summer season (Long, 2004).

Humans and Fire

Many ecological regions of the world are dependent on fire to sustain the natural balance of life. Fire is an important natural phenomenon that encourages the regrowth and diversity of vegetation in many forests, deserts, and grasslands. Much of the plant and tree life in these regions depend on fire to create a domain conducive for growth and use fire as a mechanism for germination (Cohen, 2004). Fire can be extremely fierce and swift, thus making weather and climate conditions the most important factors in assessing a fire. Before humans inhabited the regions susceptible to fire, weather conditions, e.g. lightning and volcanoes, were the only source for ignition (Cohen, 2004).

Fire Classifications

After a fire is ignited, whether it is by lightning, volcanic matter, or intentional, it can burn as three different types. A ‘surface fire’ burns along the ground burning grasses, plants, shrubs, and other foliage limited to the surface.A ‘groundfire’ burns the roots and other plant material found in the soil, below the surface. These fires usually burn by glowing combustion. ‘Crown fires’ burn the tops of trees and shrubs and spread quickly by winds and climate conditions (Cohen, 2004).

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Fires are classified according to how they start and what the intentional means of the management team are. Lightning is the most common source for igniting natural fires, which can result in prescribed fires or wildfires.A prescribed fire can be intentionally set, or occur as a natural result of a lightning strike. Ecologists are aware of the importance of the natural cycle of fire and use prescribed fires to improve and restore ecosystems and prevent damaging wildfires. “Prescribed burns prevent forest fires by clearing out vegetation, such as small trees, shrubs, and brush, which can eventually fuel a much larger fire” (Cohen, 2004). Fire fighters can allow lightning fires to burn with less danger if fuel materials within the immediate vicinity of buildings, campgrounds, and homes are cleared away. The reduction of fuels decreases the intensity of wildfires, which leads to easier management of them because they become more predictable and less powerful (Cohen, 2004).

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Wildfires are all fires in which humans attempt to extinguish because either lives or properties are in danger. Forest Service studies have shown that often where there were large wildfires there had not been any recent prescribed burns.More on prescribed burning will be discussed later in the document (Cohen, 2004).

Weather and Climate Conditions

The amount of rainfall, or lack of, can be useful in determining the amount of moisture in the region. The physical characteristics within various ecosystems can cause changes in the weather within small areas. “Landscape factors that affect fires are elevation, configuration of land, and the direction of the hill or mountain face” (Cohen, 2004). This is a significant factor in Western Australia, especially in the Darling Ranges. The slope of a hill is extremely important due to the fact that hot air rises and preheats uphill fuels, which causes fires to move more rapidly uphill than downhill. Fuels are naturally raised by the slope of a hill, which brings them closer to the flames. Therefore, the angle of a slope is as important as wind speed in determining the spread of a fire. There is a shorter fire season at higher elevations where the climate is cooler and wetter. Slopes that receive more sunlight tend to be drier and warmer which lead to longer fire seasons and longer daily burning periods (Cohen, 2004).

The Effects of Fire on Ecosystems

For millions of years, natural selection and adaptations have acted on plant and animal life to result in fire-dependent ecosystems. Many plants depend on fire to heat and scar their seeds as a process for germination. Burned out trees provide useful shelter for birds, reptiles, and small mammals. Decaying trees release nutrients into the soil and serve as a base for new plants to sprout. Much of the plant life in Western Australia has evolved to use fire directly as a catalyst for reproduction and sustainability by the nourishment left in its path, see figure 1 for a diagrammatic representation of a fire cycle (Cohen, 2004).

Figure 1: Fire Cycle (Cohen, 2004)

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The Detrimental Aspects of Fire

Fire serves many positive purposes in plant and animal life in ecosystems, but it can also damage communities just as well. One of the most damaging effects of fire is erosion. Intense fires, especially in small tree and shrub communities, can burn the vegetation down to the roots.On hillsides and mountainsides, the vegetation holds off excess rainfall runoff. When a fire destroys the intricate matrix of roots and grasses, devastating landslides can occur. Sediments can cloud streams, which can affect fish life. Humus, the decaying organic material on the ground within the vegetation, can hold five times its weight in water. Therefore, the increased runoff resulting from erosion can seriously damage the watershed (Cohen, 2004).

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The fire repellent oils and resins contained in plant life also serve as an erosion factor following a fire. The fire retarding materials are released into the soil when the plants are burned and form water-resistant slides in the soil (Cohen, 2004).

Soil and water temperatures are also greatly affected by fires. When the canopy of leaves and branches are destroyed, sunlight reaches regions that are not used to the added heat. Foliage that normally survived under the previously shady regions cannot survive because of the increases in sunlight and temperature (Cohen, 2004).

The Effects of Fire on Animals

Fires can affect animals in a variety of ways depending on the animals and the region involved. After a fire has ravaged an ecosystem,animals with a specialized diet hardly ever survive as well as animals that can feed on a variety of food sources. The outer area, or ‘edge’, of a forest generally increases following a fire, which often provides more habitat area and results in an increase in species to the forest. During long periods without fire, trees in dense forests often out-compete the grasses and shrubs that large animals feed on, resulting in a decline in big game (Smith, 2000).

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Fires can also serve as a natural population regulator. The animals fast enough and strong enough to out run a fire survive to reproduce; the older and weaker animals are selected against. Other wildlife take advantage of fire indirectly by scavenging the remains of the carcasses left in the wake of a fire. The specific effects of fire on animals depend on the kind of fire, the type of vegetation, and the individual animal. More animals are killed in chaparral fires because the shrubs are harder to run through than the grasses that usually blanket a forest floor. Larger animals generally survive more often than smaller ones; although aburrowed animal can escape burning, usually it suffocates in the meantime (Smith, 2000).

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Many birds also thrive after a fire when the seeds of many trees are dispersed. Birds, like the woodpecker, take advantage of burned out trees to make nests or forage for dead insects. On the contrary, other birds, for instance the grey owl, flourish in old-growth forests and therefore decrease after a fire has destroyed their community. Insects usually do not survive fires well because their escape range is too small. This can affect birds if the specific insects are a food source for the aviators. Trees can benefit from the death of insects that reside in their trunks (Smith, 2000).

Prescribed Burning – An Argument ‘For’ and ‘Against’

Argument ‘For’ Prescribed Burning:

My fundamental reason for agreeing with prescribed burning is because I live in the hills area of Western Australia, and I have experienced and know the devastating effects of a bush fire on a local community. Incorporating a prescribed burning approach in our communities can have the following advantages:

Reduction of Hazardous Fuels

Prescribed burning removes accumulated fuels and therefore the risk of intense fires. Prescribed burning must be repeated at regular intervals to maintain the protective effect of reduced vegetative fuels (Long, 2004).

Altering Vegetative Communities

Many public agencies and some private landowners conduct prescribed burns to restore or improve natural forest conditions. Longleaf pine forests are commonly burned, but so are ecosystems as diverse as sand-hill scrub and wet sawgrass or pond cypress prairies. In natural forests, burning promotes seed germination, flowering, or re-sprouting of fire-adapted native plants and generally improves wildlife habitat. Prescribed burning also changes the composition and density of existing vegetation and reduces intrusion of shrubs and invasive exotic weeds (Long, 2004).

Improving Wildlife and Livestock Habitat

Regular burning of rangelands and understorey plants improves forage quality and quantity for wildlife and livestock. New shrub, herb, and grass sprouts capture the quick flush of nutrients into the soil after a fire and are often more nutritious and palatable than older plants. Fires promote flower, seed, and fruit production, thus increasing available nuts and fruits for wildlife. Insects also increase rapidly after most fires. Burning different areas at different intervals and in different seasons produces a diversity of landscapes, animal food, and cover sources (Long, 2004).

Controlling Pest Problems

Prescribed burning has been used to control several different pest problems:

  • Needle disease on longleaf pine seedlings
  • Bark beetles in infested trees that are cut and piled;
  • Root rot fungi;
  • Spittle bugs in pastures; and
  • Ticks and red bugs (chiggers) (Long, 2004).

Improving Access

By reducing dead fuels, harvest residues, and dense understorey shrubs, prescribed fires can increase:
  • Openings for tree planting or natural regeneration;
  • Visibility within a stand for recreation or hunting;
  • Openings for wildlife feeding, travel, and display;
  • Access for hiking and other recreational activities (Long, 2004).

Argument ‘Against’ Prescribed Burning:

Although the benefits of prescribed burning are clear, there are also some notable concerns. Two of the most important are the possibilities of fire spreading to adjacent properties and smoke intrusions in populated areas. Good management can reduce these concerns. Fires are generally not permitted by the Division of Forestry when hot, dry weather conditions or high fuel loads increase the likelihood that the fire could spread to other property. Similarly, fires should be ignited only when wind directions are predicted to carry smoke away from nearby smoke sensitive areas (Long, 2004).

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These restrictions may limit the opportunities to burn to just a few days each year. Given these limitations, many forest landowners do not have the staff or capability to burn all their land; they rely on other management tools to reduce dense shrub and understorey vegetation. Proper herbicide applications may require less frequent re-treatment than would be necessary with fire. Mowers, choppers, chain saws, and grazing are also used to reduce dense brush and grasses, especially on small land ownerships. However, shrubs grow back quickly after these mechanical treatments (Long, 2004).

Another concern with prescribed burning, especially in plantations grown for timber production, is the potential for mortality or growth loss in trees. Even with older longleaf pines, long-term studies have demonstrated that repeated fires will reduce stand volume. The reductions are the result of individual trees killed by fires as well as productivity and growth losses due to needle scorch (Long, 2004).

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Fire can also negatively affect individual animals. For example, slow moving animals may not be able to escape even low intensity fire fronts. Although ground nests may be lost in certain seasons, adult birds usually re-nest and benefit from the abundance of insects that follow a fire. Small animals that find cover in burrows or under logs, plants, or stumps may be much easier prey for predators, which truly benefit from fires (Long, 2004).

Conclusion

“Fires are natural occurrences, similar to hurricanes, floods, and heavy rains, although devastating, they are also important to the survival of ecosystems. Fire acts as a necessary evil, destroying, cleansing, and diversifying wildlife communities” (Cohen, 2004). Fire has been a key responsibility in shaping the ecological system of Western Australia. As a result, a number of flora and fauna that are present today only exist because of fire. They have managed to survive the harsh and disturbing effects of a fire and are now adapted to such conditions. For this reason, there is plenty of flora and fauna that are characteristic of Western Australia, as the fittest and the adapted survived for existence.

Fire has caused numerous amounts of plant species to germinate, some being completely new to the environment, as germination can take place after a fire which leaves the soil rich in nutrients that is essential for plant growth. Many communities have also adopted the prescribed burning approach for safety, as the benefits of prescribed burning outweigh the negatives. The ecosystems in Western Australia are fuel enriched, which are taken advantage of, mainly during the scorching conditions of the summer. For this reason, Western Australia contains a diversity of flora and fauna that are characteristic to this area.

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Reference List

Cohen, J., 2004. The Impact of Fire on Ecosystems. Last accessed web page: http://www.micro.utexas.edu/courses/mcmurry/spring98/10/jerry.html at 07/10/04
Lavorel, S.2002. Landscape Processes. Last accessed web page: http://www.gcte.org/focus2/a22structur.htm at 04/10/04
Long, A.J., 2004. Benefits of Prescribed Burning. Last accessed web page: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/FR061 at 13/10/04
Smith, J.K., 2000. Wildland fire in ecosystems: effects of fire on fauna. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-42-vol. 1. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station.


Submitted: March 06, 2009

© Copyright 2022 Tigerchill. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:

Comments

gerabel

Excellent write... a well put together essay. Very nice work.....Jerry (*_*)

Fri, March 6th, 2009 5:02pm

Author
Reply

thank you Jerry.

Sat, March 7th, 2009 4:12am

Dread and Fugitive Mind

I thought this is gonna be a boring lesson but its not. I learned a lot from it. Good compilation, "bravo" for the time spent on research and the effort.

Fri, March 6th, 2009 7:41pm

Author
Reply

cheers mate, i appreciate your comments.

Sat, March 7th, 2009 4:12am

EdwardJBradleySr

Tigerchill:

Most informative! Engaging as well! Excellent and thorough treatment of a most timely, serious and important environmental topic.

Gave it an "I Like It" vote. Well deserved.

Happy trails,

Ed Bradley.

Fri, March 6th, 2009 8:53pm

Author
Reply

thank you Ed for reading and commenting on ths piece.

Sat, March 7th, 2009 4:12am

Alice Clarence

this is very informative. i never thought about fire that way.

Fri, March 6th, 2009 9:11pm

Author
Reply

thanks Alice.

Sat, March 7th, 2009 4:11am

l3ubbles

i havent had enough time to read it all as i am very busy, but i have read most of it.A very very informative and well written essay. well done. i'll come back later and keep reading. xox jen xox

Sat, March 7th, 2009 1:04am

Author
Reply

no probs Jen, thanks for checking out quickly anyway.

Sat, March 7th, 2009 4:05am

Anastasia Starlena

Informative and a good read. I do think it was a great piece. I learned some things I did not know before. Thank you for educating me.

Take Care,
Ana

Sat, March 7th, 2009 4:45am

Author
Reply

thank you for the comments and it's good to know it was educational.

Sat, March 7th, 2009 4:02am

Gentlespirit

Tigerchill thanks for the invite to read this. It is so well written - no wonder it was a university piece! I certainly learned a few things from it. fortunately here in the UK (Scotland0 we do not get too may fires, the farmers burn off the fields (as Bufferdude told you) people are also not allowed to light bonfires at certain times either.

An extremely well written and beautifully punctuated piece (with those photos) ....... wow.

hugs
Vee x

Sat, March 7th, 2009 3:02pm

Author
Reply

thank you very much Vee for taking the time to read this essay, i really appreciate it. take care, Tiger.

Sat, March 7th, 2009 8:02am

dhotchick9

wow is the only word that can describe this

*clicks I Likes It*

Sat, March 7th, 2009 5:32pm

Author
Reply

thanks very much.

Sun, March 8th, 2009 7:33am

SRDarling

Hey! Great photos, as usual! And again, very good writing. Around here, we burn our praries regularly to help it grow, so I'm quite familiar with the intentional burning. But I didn't know much about the other stuff. Very good. I think this is great you're being so outspoken about the bush fires. Very good indeed. Keep it up! -SRDarling

Sun, March 8th, 2009 3:02am

Author
Reply

your words are very kind, thank you for taking the time to check this out.

Sun, March 8th, 2009 7:34am

Pratibha

interesting read Tiger. I am sure GOD knows the reason behind all natural calamites.
All i wish for and pray is that there should not be any damage to life either to human race or to animals...then, it all becomes gory

Sun, March 8th, 2009 5:25am

Author
Reply

thank you Pratibha, you sharing your thought with me means a lot.

Sun, March 8th, 2009 7:35am

scott 37

Living in NZ it's interesting to come across people who don't know the old fundamental of fires, "DON'T RUN UPHILL!".
The other interesting fire fact that I've come by is that the Aborignials used fire for hunting, yeah? But what I didn't realise was that it was the animals coming back to eat the regrowth, that they were after.
Now that's my fire facts.
Nice peice, have a great day.

Sun, March 8th, 2009 10:36pm

Author
Reply

cheers mate for having the patience to read through this essay. appreciate it.

Tue, March 10th, 2009 6:35am

abigallover

Very INTERESTING.I especially like the affects on animals. I enjoyed reading it. Write more animal stories and i'll be on your site forever.

Tue, March 10th, 2009 10:55pm

Author
Reply

thank for taking the time to check this out.

Wed, March 11th, 2009 7:23am

HomeCharityGraceHope

Awwwww!!! The part about the detrimental aspects is horrible! Especially those poor animals that have to go through that! Thank you for writing this. It opened my eyes to a lot of new things that I never knew. I also hope nothing happens to the poor humans and animals and plants and flowers throughout the natural disasters such as the fires. You're really amazing with all of the work you put into this and the research! Well done! I applaud all that you have accomplished and all of the people you have informed! Great work! :)

Wed, March 11th, 2009 8:01pm

Author
Reply

your kind words are very upliftig and inspiring! i don't quite know how to thank yu but to simply say thank you.

Sat, March 14th, 2009 7:49am

abyskaria

This is a quintessential work with truth and perfection on the stream. Keep the good work.

Sun, April 5th, 2009 1:33pm

Author
Reply

thank you for your kind words.

Sun, April 5th, 2009 5:43pm

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