Today was a pretty uncomfortable day for me. Unrelated to my discomfort, Yesterday (and to some degree still today) we have had some pretty major wildfires in the area. Fires make people uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Through this forced segue I’ll be talking about them.
The most obvious discomfort is the apparent pure destructive nature of fire. It accelerates entropy in everything that it touches. All the fuel in most things that are presented to fire will be converted into more heat energy to supply that fire with the energy that it needs to continue the cycle.
Humans are very destructive but at times our desire to prevent destruction can do more harm than good. We see forests as these sacred cows that must be protected from the butcher’s block. There is something about them that we hold dear. I grew up in Washington where I watched forests get torn down for terribly ugly condos. It was a painful sight that still sticks with me to this day. Presumably the wood that was cut down got used for something nice but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was pointless to tear down the forest when it was that very forest that gave the area its beauty.
How would land values remain if the forests that made those lands precious were gone? In California this might be even more true with what little vegetation that does survive being extremely flammable in our current drought situation. When a fire has ended its run you are left with nothing but dark grey soot for as far as the flames licked. Given how grumpy some folks can be about wind farms this is probably enough to give them a stroke.
The thing to remember about fire is that while it might be destructive and it might make people uncomfortable, ultimately it is very important. Billions of years of evolution have been bolstered by the even hand of the flame. Without the touch of fire the diversity in an area depletes. I’ll explain it a bit or you can check out this (or basically any related) source. When woods grow generally a single vegetation grows taller than the rest around it (oversimplifying), in doing so it creates a great deal of shade that stunts the growth of the other plants.
[A note: It was our desire to protect forests from any destruction that let them get to a state where fire could be quite so radically damaging. A lack of a reset let the forest grow very very thick.]
You might think “wonderful, that’s evolution in action” except that this reduces biodiversity. Biodiversity is essential to a healthy biome. For the same reason that you shouldn’t mate with your cousin. The more variety in the life in an area the less it will succumb to disease or disaster. It is far more likely that a single disease could wipe out a single species than all the species in an area. If the only species in the area is that susceptible species you’ve just lost everything. If that is your primary predator things are going to get real dark, real fast. With the herbivores breeding into starvation.
Nutrients will get unevenly taken from the land because of the biases of the primary plants and animals. Similar to how people drain certain resources much more drastically than others. What fire does for you is provide a reset button. Nature doesn’t actually have a consciousness and is unable to make mistakes, but for the sake of this point I’m going to treat it like it does. Nature creates a vacuum for winners in the arms race of life. Not always, but sometimes. Those vacuums become very very difficult to break and until they are an area becomes very weak. If you consider an entire biome an organism this all becomes easier to mentally wrap your head around.
That fleshy heartbeat that is your local woods requires a variety of plants and animals to keep itself healthy. Put too much of any one thing into it and you are liable to cause irreparable damage. Fire acts a bit like a defibrillator on a weakened and dying heart. It moves across the land and resets the board. The hardiest of plants and the most cunning (or lucky) of animals rise from the ashes of its wake. The ground becomes very fertile with the sudden massive influx of nutrients. The opportunity for new plants and animals to dominate the area arise. Many biomes function because they receive the occasional lightning bolt or other natural disaster that wipes them clean.
I’m not saying that I like it. It makes me uncomfortable. But I do think that we have serious trouble seeing the forest for the trees. The bigger picture is lost in this aggrandizing of something that isn’t uniquely grand. Merely a single phase of a single organ in the greater biological scheme of the Earth. It may be important for us to recognize this and to look at the woods with new eyes.