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Natural Resources Agent
Certain ecosystems need fire to stay healthy just as people need medicine to stay healthy. Fires make an ecosystem healthier? Yes! Prescribed fires and some wildfires have a variety of benefits for the plant and animals within a natural system, and fire benefits us too. What good could come from a fire? Let’s find out!
Benefits to Plants
Many plants are adapted to survive fire, but some plants actually need fire to survive. Unlike most other pine trees, the Sand Pine (Pinus clausa) retains its lower branches which serve as a “fuel ladder” attracting fire up the entire tree to ensure it reaches all of its cones. The cones of the Sand Pine are sealed shut with a resin which is melted by the heat of a fire. Following a fire, the parent tree may die, but all of the freshly opened cones will shed seeds on bare ground and be ready to sprout and grow into new Sand Pine trees. Fires are also beneficial to plants because they open up the tree canopy, allowing more sunlight to reach the understory plants. Native plants benefit because of their unique adaptations to survive fire which their invasive or exotic counterparts may not. A fire may kill off many unwanted competitors of these native plant species, allowing natural Florida species to thrive. Fires are also important for maintaining a particular ecosystem type. For example, pine flatwoods ecosystems, dominated by pine trees and saw palmettos need fire on a 2-5 year cycle to thrive and remain healthy. When fire is suppressed or removed from this ecosystem, other unrepresentative plants will start to take over, such as oak trees. As oak trees mature, they slowly shade out the understory plants and over time will transform the ecosystem from pine flatwoods to an oak hammock. This transformation, while natural, is detrimental to the plants and animals that depend upon the pine flatwoods habitat.
Benefits to Wildlife
The Florida Scrub-Jay, an endemic species found only in Florida, is a perfect example of an animal species that needs fire (indirectly) in order to survive. This bird is a habitat specialist, found only in scrub habitat which is the most endangered ecosystem type in Florida. The key to maintaining scrub habitat is fire. Regular prescribed fires maintain the scrub oaks (3-10ft in height), bare patches of sand, and other low growing vegetations such as palmettos which the Florida Scrub-Jays prefer. Without fire, the scrub habitat is lost and the Florida Scrub-Jay struggles to survive. Most animals within fire-dependent ecosystems are well adapted to survive fires. For example, over 350 species find shelter in gopher tortoise burrows during a fire. For this reason the gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species. Following a fire event, the remaining nutrient-rich ashes are absorbed into the soil and become available for new plant growth, a benefit for the plants and animals. The fresh and tender shoots of these seedlings are a favorite for a variety of wildlife including deer, turkey, gopher tortoises, bobwhite quail and many more. Fires also clear out densely vegetated areas to allow for easier movement of wildlife through the area.
Benefits to People
It is often difficult to consider how fire could be beneficial to us when it is often portrayed as a natural disaster, but allow me to explain. Land managers actually fight fire with fire. In addition to the benefits mentioned above, land managers may conduct regularly scheduled prescribed burns to reduce future fire hazard by reducing burnable fuels (dead leaves, branches, trees, etc.). In other words, prescribed fires help to burn off the buildup of dead and dry wood before these fuels accumulate to a dangerous level and pose a serious threat in the face of a future wild fire. Fire needs three elements to occur: fuel, oxygen and heat. By conducting regular prescribed burns, the amount of fuel is kept low, preventing a future wild fire from becoming a major threat to us.
We may not directly connect the health of our ecosystems to the quality of our lives, but we could not survive without them. It is critically important for natural resource managers to maintain healthy ecosystems for the benefit of plants, animals and people. Prescribed fires and manageable wildfires are an extremely valuable tool which keeps natural systems functioning in a way that benefits all life. Find out more from my next blog about ecosystem services.