Environmental Consequences of Forest Fires – A wildfire is defined as being an uncontrolled fire that occurs in the wilderness.
They can be massive in size and have the ability to spread across vast distances, jumping rivers, roads and fire breaks in the process.
Usually, wildfires occur in hot and dry climates during the hottest months of spring and summer.
On average, there are a reported 60,000 to 80,000 wildfires each year, and 3 million to 10 millions acres of green land are destroyed in their wake.
Wildfires can have different effects on the environment depending on their size and frequency.
Environmental Consequences of Forest Fires
Have you noticed the apparent increase in wildfires across the globe? Consequences of Global Warming
If you’ve been paying attention, then you’ve already noticed the chatter surrounding climate change and global warming.
Raising temperatures continue to increase the likelihood of fires breaking out.
Have you stopped to consider what the environmental consequences of forest fires are?
Find out the top five ways wildfires impact the environment below.
Immediate Loss of Life and Vegetation
The most obvious environmental impact of a forest fire is the immediate loss of life and vegetation in the area.
As a fire breaks out, it spreads by burning through vegetation.
Wildfires take out smaller trees and ground-level vegetation first.
Depending on the size of the blaze, animals and humans may get trapped and killed.
First Responders attempting to put out the flames may also lose their lives.
The loss of vegetation and life causes both short-term and long-term effects on the environment.
Bigger trees typically survive smaller fires, but they do suffer long-term effects from their burn wounds.
Burns make bigger trees more vulnerable to insects, disease and funguses long after the initial threat passes.
After the fire is put out, the initial threat is over.
Despite that, there are more environmental consequences of forest fires to consider.
What happens to all the ash, soot and debris that collects on the ground?
The scorched ground recovers by halting water absorption.
This tactic prevents the soil from absorbing debris.
Instead, the debris stays on the surface until it’s washed away by rain.
This effect is called post-fire runoff.
If runoff isn’t contained, then toxic sludge can make its way to natural water sources.
If a water source gets contaminated:
• Active burning can cause ashes to get into the water supply
• Changes in the long-term chemistry of the water
• Cloudiness and increased presence of metals, dissolved organic carbon and sediment
• Potential chemical runoff
• Death and disease in local wildlife
Around 80 percent of freshwater sources in the United States come from forested land, so post-fire runoff should be concerning for all of us.
A wildfire immediately produces a smoke cloud.
The polluted plume moves downwind and impacts everything in its path.
Animals and humans both suffer when they’re exposed to soot and smoke particles in the air.
On top of the smoke itself, fires often release other hazards into the air.
What types of pollutants and chemicals are commonly released during wildfires?
Pollutants and chemicals from forest fires
- PAHs (Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)
- Nitrogen oxide
- Sulfur oxide
- Carbon dioxide
The types of contaminants released in the smoke cloud depends on what the fire burns down.
The severity of their effects hinges on how long the area is exposed to the plume.
Most often, the plume travels upward and spreads out over large areas, which reduces its overall environmental impact.
In the past, researchers have mainly focused on how metals, particulates and smoke can cause health problems in humans and animals.
Now, they’ve become increasingly concerned about the levels of carbon dioxide that get released in fires.
According to scientists, about 8 billion tons of carbon dioxide have been released by fires over the last 20 years.
In short, that amounts to about five to ten percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Massive carbon dioxide releases, like in wildfires, are only worsening climate change according to leading scientists.
Another significant impact of a forest fire is the effect it has on the area’s wildlife.
Immediately after a fire, numerous animals have scattered away from their homes.
Most animals are able to avoid the immediate danger a fire presents.
What are the main changes that animals deal with right away?
• An immediate loss of shelter
• Changes in the food supply
It may come as a surprise, but many animals benefit from fires.
Deer, turkey and other animals have more open area to graze.
Predator birds immediately benefit by preying on fleeing animals.
In some cases, wild bird species have been known to intentionally spread fires for this reason.
On the other hand, birds, reptiles and some smaller mammals often lose their nesting areas.
Fish and aquatic wildlife are also adversely impacted by runoff.
According to wildlife experts, young and smaller animals are the most vulnerable to both the short and long-term effects of fires.
Post Forest Fire Gentle Rebirth
Officials estimate over 3,000 human lives are lost each year as a result of fires throughout the country.
An additional $11.5 billion worth of property is damaged.
It’s impossible to measure the number of animals and level of vegetation that’s destroyed by fire.
These discouraging statistics highlight the negative aspects of fires, but there is light and hope on the other side.
After a blaze, nature always recovers and heals.
This process begins as grass and vegetation begin repopulating the burnt area.
Environment benefits of a forest fire
- All pest infestations are destroyed
- Prior diseases and fungal growths are killed
- The soil is replenished with carbons and nitrogen, making the area more fertile
- New growth is stronger and more resilient
While humans cause most modern-day fires, fires do occur naturally in nature as a result of lightning strikes and other causes.
These periodic burns are nature’s way of purifying the area.
Environmental Consequences of Forest Fires
Environmental Consequences of Forest Fires
Natural Vs Man-made Causes of Wildfires
Naturally occurring wildfires are far less frequent than man-made ones.
The most frequent causes of natural wildfires are volcanoes, lightning, spontaneous combustion, and sparks caused by rock slides.
Natural coal seam fires have also been attributed to causing wildfires when combustible plant material is located nearby.
Most commonly, wildfires are started by human negligence.
Intentional arson, equipment sparks, discarded cigarettes, unattended campfires, controlled agricultural burns and power lines have all caused a number of wildfires in the past.
With an increase in deforestation across the globe, highly flammable grasslands have taken their place.
Statistically speaking, six times as many wildfires are started by humans than any natural causes.
Whether caused by human negligence or naturally occurring, wildfires can be dangerous to homes and businesses in the surrounding areas.
In order to protect one’s self and home, evacuation plans should be set and home insurance should be purchased.
Classes and instruction can be found to help protect businesses and employees such as safety degrees online or by contacting a local fire department.
Environmental Consequences of Forest Fires – Positive Consequences of Wildfires
Wildfires can serve to clean up any dead or decaying matter strewn across forest, which, in turn, enables an increase in new plant growth.
Wildfires are also useful in maintaining the balance within an ecosystem by removing any harmful insects and diseased plants.
An added benefit of plant removal is an increase in sunlight, which can assist in the regeneration of plant seeds.
Scientists have also realized that wildfires can increase the amount of plant and animal diversity within a particular ecosystem.
In the midst of a wildfire, exceptional amount of nutrients are released into the soil, which can result in a flood of new plant growth.
Some plants even require wildfires to germinate their seeds and stimulate growth, such as the peculiar species of Panderosa pine trees.
Land use climate change adaptation and indigenous peoples
Regular wildfires also help by killing invasive species, allowing for indigenous species to continue thriving.
If wildfires do not occur regularly, this can lead to forested regions being overrun with underbrush and trees.
Subsequently, when these forests are finally subject to a wildfire, they may burn too hot, thereby stifling new growth rather than causing it.
Environmental Consequences of Forest Fires – Negative Consequences of Wildfires
When the frequency of wildfires in a particular region is too much, it may have a devastating impact on the ecosystem.
For example, frequent wildfires will disrupt the natural cycles of these forests by eradicating native plant species and encouraging growth of fire-resistant plants and other invasive plant species.
Because some of these invasive species are highly flammable, they cause a perpetual cycle where they increase the risk of future wildfires that further destroy native plant species.
Wildfires can exacerbate levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, thereby strengthening the greenhouse effect that is already plaguing our earth.
Further, wildfires generate ash and destroy available plant nutrients, thereby greatly effecting the biodiversity of forests.
With an increase in water runoff, wildfires can engender flash flood conditions and enable soil erosion.
In conclusion, wildfires serve many purposes in nature, but whether they are positive or negative is contingent on their frequency and cause.
If human beings are striving towards a sustainable future, then a few precautionary measures must be made.
In regards to wildfires, humans need to become aware and educated of the potential consequences of their negligence.
If they can learn to live in symbiosis with the earth, then we can depend on the earth to provide us a sustainable future.