DO WE HAVE SO MANY FOREST FIRES?
What fire in the Midwest killed more than a thousand people on Oct.
8, 1871? (Hint: It was not the Great Chicago Fire.).
The Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin.
for the death toll from the Peshtigo forest fire range from 1,500 to
2,500. At the site of the former town, a mass grave holds the remains
of up to 500 unidentified victims. The death toll for the Chicago fire
was estimated to be 250 to 300 people.
is the Great Chicago Fire better known than the far more deadly Peshtigo
Fire 225 miles due north? Economics. Almost $200 million, a whole lot
of money back then, was estimated to have been lost in the city fire.
Mostly cut-over woodlands were burned in Wisconsin, except for the hundreds
of people trapped by the fast-moving forest fire. Forest fires have
traditionally been classified as disasters when economic loss occurs.
The well-publicized fires on the West Coast qualify because of the loss
of merchantable timber and expensive houses.
about the effects on wildlife? I know of no native species of plant
or animal that has ever gone extinct because of natural fires on any
continent. Organisms have adapted to persist with periodic fires in
regions where fire is a natural phenomenon, with mortality of native
plants and wildlife during fires being negligible. A few terrestrial
mammals, amphibians, reptiles and even birds may be killed in forest
and prairie fires, but overall levels are seldom affected. Insects and
spiders are also susceptible to fires, but recovery to normal population
sizes generally occurs within a few months.
occur frequently from lightning, nature is prepared. The dominant plants
are fire-resistant or even fire-dependent. Jack pines in the upper Midwest
and wiregrass in longleaf pine forests of the Southeast depend on fires
to produce viable seeds. Burning of the litter layer exposes mineral
soil, optimizing seed establishment. A side benefit to young longleaf
pine and other fire-resistant plants is the return of essential nutrients
to the soil. In a region with fire-tolerant vegetation, native animals
adapted to living with periodic fire are also resistant.
times, fires whooshed through forests frequently enough to prevent heavy
buildup of ground litter. Without firefighters or roads to retard their
spread, some natural fires covered immense areas, eventually being extinguished
by rain or a river barrier.
or no flammable material remains after a forest fire. Only a scant covering
of dead grass, leaves or pine needles is available as fuel in the years
following, resulting in fires that burn rapidly and usually low to the
ground. Under such a cycle, fires are part of the natural environment
and no more detrimental to wildlife than other natural events. But where
forest fires have been suppressed for decades, the buildup of ground
litter can be immense and serve as fuel for a hot and prolonged fire.
If the fire reaches the tops of tall trees, a crown fire develops, spreading
from the top of one tree to another.
programs are actually designed to prevent buildup of ground litter.
But controlled, or prescribed, burning often results in complaints about
smoke on highways and in neighborhoods. Homeowners in those areas need
to stop complaining about the smoke when forestry programs want to use
controlled burning to clear the forest of potentially dangerous ground
litter. Surely a little smoke in the living room for a week is better
than having the whole house destroyed when it's engulfed in flames.
as we suppress fires and allow forests to build up combustible material,
the threat of dangerous forest fires will always be with us. Two attitudes
exist about how to deal with such threats: Either change fire suppression
policies and avoid out-of-control fires through prescribed burning or
maintain a national, ever-ready forest-fire-fighting force at taxpayers'
expense and let wildfires keep happening. The first approach seems more
you have an environmental question or comment, email