Forest & Fire Ecology

 The 416 Fire burns behind an area that burned during the Missionary Ridge Fire, but has begun to regenerate. Photo by Priscilla Sherman. 

The 416 Fire burns behind an area that burned during the Missionary Ridge Fire, but has begun to regenerate. Photo by Priscilla Sherman. 

Wildfire is a natural part of our ecosystem. Ponderosa Pine forests in this area historically burned with mixed severity every few decades, but for over 100 years, we have successfully suppressed forest fires across the country. Our communities are surrounded by forests that are denser than historically natural, which decreases habitat quality and makes forests prone to diseases, drought, and larger and hotter fires.

Now, we are faced with the difficult challenge of restoring our forests to historic conditions and protecting our communities from fire, while grappling with the fact that with climate change, forests may not return in the same way. 

Despite the complexities of our situation, researchers now have decades of research exploring the ecological benefits of forest fire. Variations in fire severity create meadows, shrublands and forests that can promote biodiversity through increased habitat diversity. With more light penetrating the canopy and reaching the forest floor, wildflowers and tree seedlings can regenerate in abundance. Several plant species are even stimulated to germinate after exposure to heat and smoke. Fire also releases nutrients into the ecosystem and clears out diseases, allowing a new cycle of life to thrive. 

Despite the myriad benefits of fires in forests, high severity fires that burn trees completely and bake soils can take decades to regenerate significant vegetation, and the forests may never return to their previous form in the era of climate change. Other severely burned areas may return after the slow process of successional growth from grasses, oaks and aspens to coniferous forests. We recognize such changes to beloved ecosystems, although natural, can be painful and difficult. While we hope to understand the impacts of the 416 Fire as researchers, know that we, as people, love this land too.