Looking Back on Fire History to See the Future
What’s the first thing most people think about when they hear the word fire? It often has a bad reputation as a purely destructive, terrible force that ruins the environment and drives out all wildlife. You see it represented that way in popular culture (e.g., Bambi) or even on the news. It’s true – wildfires can be very dangerous and often threaten lives and property. But even when it comes to prescribed fire, many people are still cautious. So how can we turn that negative perception around? I chatted once again with Jon Steigerwaldt, Ruffed Grouse Society Regional Biologist for Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa. It turns out Jon’s Master’s thesis was on fire history, ecology, and implementation. So who better to talk to about this topic?
Generally, there’s a certain stigma about using fire as a management tool. While we’ve certainly started incorporating it more, many still view it as a treatment for a symptom – run a prescribed fire through a Wildlife Management Area to remove some brush or use it to regenerate certain trees. But there’s a lot of evidence that says we should view it more as an ecosystem-based process that we’re committed to over time. Starting as far back as the 1920’s, Herbert L. Stoddard and Aldo Leopold talked about the importance of fire (Vogl 1970), so it’s not a new idea.
Historical Role of Fires
Jon told me that the first thing we must acknowledge is that fire is a natural process and it has a long and interesting history on the North American landscape. It’s believed that lightning has always been responsible for naturally igniting fires across the country, as it still occasionally does today. Prior to European settlement, Native Americans would also set fires to encourage new vegetation to grow (Grange 1946; Drobyshev et al. 2008). As a result, these natural and human-caused fires set much of North America down a disturbance-dependent evolutionary path. Without fire, many of the plant communities that evolved over thousands of years struggle to persist naturally. For example, Jon’s thesis focused on fire history in Wisconsin by observing fire scars on old red pine trees. He found that the pre-European settlement average fire interval (i.e., general occurrence) in the area of Wisconsin he studied was about every 5.2 to 8.2 years – that’s pretty often.
Historically, it’s believed that fires were frequent and less intense, with occasional severe fires (Drobyshev et al. 2008). These frequent fires encouraged fire-adapted plants, such as oaks and pine trees, and controlled the spread of many non-fire tolerant hardwood/deciduous trees. Oaks and pines tend to have thick bark that protects them from many fires, while maples for example do not. As a result, many settlers in Wisconsin found pine and oak savannas where today there exists primarily dense hardwood forests (Grange 1946).
After European settlement, it’s thought that fire may have actually increased temporarily on the landscape as settlers used it during land clearing activities (Drobyshev et al. 2008). However, we quickly turned to fire prevention and started viewing it as a negative force. By removing fire as a process, humans inadvertently caused more fire issues. Without it, more vegetation grew and accumulated (i.e., brush, dead trees, more grass, etc.), which caused hotter and more intense fires when they did ignite. This resulted in some very devastating wildfires in the 19th and 20th century, which then further reinforced our collective fear of fire in general.
Beginning in the 1920’s, Herbert L. Stoddard started the conversation about controlled burning in Wisconsin (Vogl 1967). He eventually discussed the importance of returning fire to the landscape with Wallace Grange and Aldo Leopold, and thus began a new management tool in the state: prescribed fire.
Surprising Benefits of Fire
In Grange’s 1948 book about Wisconsin grouse and land management, Stoddard wrote about the importance of thinking about “fire as an ecological force in molding the surroundings of not only the grouse, but of associated animal life as well.” Overall, fire plays an important role in creating healthy forests and abundant wildlife. While most people think of fire benefitting prairie wildlife, such as sharp-tailed grouse or prairie chickens, there are many benefits of fire for ruffed grouse too.
- Fire is the great recycling process of the natural world. It burns up dead and accumulated plant material (i.e., grass thatch, leaf duff, fallen branches, dead snags, etc.) and returns their nutrients to the soil. This makes it easier for animals to move about, including grouse broods (Sharp 1970).
- Fire also increases food availability for grouse. After dead leaves and grasses on the ground have been burnt, it leaves exposed mineral soil. This causes a flush of new plant growth, including many plants that grouse favor (Grange 1946). For example, ragweed, smartweed, violets, wild strawberry, sedges, and brambles (raspberry, blackberry, etc.) quickly colonize burned areas. Insects are also attracted to the new growth, and grouse chicks eagerly consume them for their high protein content (Gullion 1967).
- Fire sets back woody encroachment. Periodic disturbances encourage young forest growth, which is definitely beneficial for ruffed grouse. Shrubs and trees often resprout with vigor after a prescribed burn, creating new nesting or security cover and feeding opportunities (i.e., shoots, buds, etc.).
- Fire controls diseases and ticks. When fire spreads through a landscape, it has the beneficial effect of removing many parasites (such as ticks) as well. It is also believed to have a similar role with diseases of both plants and animals (Sharp 1970).
- Thick slash present in the absence of fire can give the advantage to mammalian predators of ruffed grouse (Gullion 1967). In other words, burning these slash piles can help more grouse survive predation.
- Fire may also increase earthworm abundance (the primary food source of woodcock) by increasing soil alkalinity due to the remaining ash (Wing 1951).
Because of all these benefits, fire can be positive for a grouse population as a landscape process. For example, Sharp (1970) found that traditional forest management (i.e., logging) could produce about 1 bird for every 10 acres, while adding fire to that process could produce 1 bird for every 2 or 4 acres.
Challenges of Fire Culture
That all sounds great, but is it really that simple to restore fire? Although we’ve come a long way in our attitude towards it, many places still lack what Steigerwaldt referred to as a modern fire culture. Sharp (1970) discussed how the general public is nervous about fire, and for good reason. Much of that hesitation in the Lakes States, for example, stems from some very large and deadly fires in the 19th and 20th century (e.g., Peshtigo fire in 1871). Yet, there are some states that embrace fire culture, such as Florida or Oklahoma, where the landscape is often burned to restore plant communities and help wildlife. As more people learn about the benefits of fire on the landscape, more of the barriers start to come down.
While most state agencies have personnel that safely and efficiently conduct prescribed burns, that only accounts for public lands. Many private landowners are still extremely hesitant to try it. Obviously, it’s better that way than being careless about it. But if you’re interested in helping return fire to the broader landscape, there are some resources to help.
Start by calling your local wildlife or forestry agency and discuss the process with them. They can give you specific instructions and technical advice. Importantly, prescribed burns are methodically planned and implemented under ideal conditions at the right time of the year – typically spring or fall.
Bringing fire back to the landscape is challenging in today’s world. There are real social (i.e., fire culture) and regulatory hurdles in many states. To help promote a positive fire culture in your area, expose your kids to the positive roles of fire, fire safety, and how it can shape landscapes to benefit wildlife. This could be something as simple as enjoying a campfire with your children. Use it as an opportunity to teach them how fire is not just a destructive force to be respected, but an ecological good to be revered. If you have the capacity, get neighbors and friends talking about prescribed fire. Granted, it would take a collective group of landowners to burn their properties in addition to public lands to see the highest return. But most prescribed fire is good fire and moves the needle on real world results. Whether you’d simply like to manage the brush on your land or provide better habitat for wildlife, fire can be one of the most important and powerful tools in your land management toolkit. You can play a part in restoring this important natural process. Just ask your local wildlife or forestry agent how you can get involved where you live.
Drobyshev, I., Goebel, C.P., Hix, D.M., Corace, G.III., and Semko-Duncan, M.E. 2008. Pre- and post- European settlement fire history of red pine dominated forest ecosystems of Seney National Wildlife Refuge, upper Michigan. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 38(9): 2497-2514.
Gullion, G. W. 1967. Factors affecting ruffed grouse populations in the boreal forest of northern Minnesota, USA. Proc. 8th Int. Congr. Game Biol.
Grange, Wallace B. 1948. Wisconsin Grouse Problems. Wisconsin Conservation Department.
Sharp, Ward M. 1970. The Role of Fire in Ruffed Grouse Habitat Management. Proceedings: 10th Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference.
Steigerwaldt, Jonathan E. 2015. Fire History and Woody Plant Responses to Prescribed Burning and Thinning in Mixed Pine Hardwoods of Northern Wisconsin. Master’s Thesis. University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, Wisconsin
Vogl, Richard J. 1967. Controlled Burning for Wildlife in Wisconsin. Proceedings: 6th Tall Timbers Fire Ecology Conference.
Wing, L. 1951. “Practice of Wildlife Conservation.” Wiley, New York.