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  • Majd Malaeb

Forest Fires Advantages and Disadvantages

Every year it seems like there’s another disastrous wildfire in the American West. In 2018, nearly 9 million acres were burned in the US alone. Uncontrolled fires often started accidentally by people, rampage and decimate forests. For most people, a forest fire is synonymous with disaster. But there are some kinds of forest fires that actually benefit the environment.

From forests to deserts, wildfires affect air quality, vegetation, human and animal habitats, and climate around the world. Fire managers and researchers are finding ways to use NASA data to battle fires and measure their effects. Burning fires produce both ashes, which falls to the ground like snow but can also get caught up in winds, and smoke, a mixture of gases and particulate matter. These get into the atmosphere and can travel long distances impacting air quality regionally. Wildfires are unplanned fires that start in forests or wildland areas. There are numerous post-fire impacts, including an increase in air pollution and less infiltration of precipitation, contributing to flooding hazards even long after the burn.

A controlled burn is a wildfire that people set intentionally for a specific purpose. Well-thought-out and well-managed controlled burns can be incredibly beneficial for forest management, in part because they can help stop an out-of-control wildfire. The technique is called backburning, and it involves setting a controlled fire in the path of the approaching wildfire. All the flammable material is burnt up and extinguished. When the wildfire approaches, there’s no more fuel left for it to keep going, and it dies out. Forest fire science entails understanding how a fire starts, what contributes to the fire and how the fire might impact future Earth processes. Understanding climatological changes are important to understand how these changes may contribute to fires in the future.

Controlled burns are also used to prevent forest fires. Even before human involvement, natural, low-intensity wildfires occurred every few years to burn up fuel, plant debris, and dead trees, making way for young, healthy trees and vegetation to thrive. That new growth in turn supports forest wildlife. Forest managers are now replicating this natural strategy when appropriate, starting manageable, slow-burning fires to make room for the new life that will help keep the forest healthy in the long term.

The same method is one of WWF’s strategies for maintaining grassland habitats in the Northern Great Plains. Working with partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, WWF has intentionally burned hundreds of acres of prairie land to revitalize these key habitats. The fire burns off tall, aggressive vegetation that isn’t as hospitable to wildlife, and makes room for new growth that attracts bison, birds, and prairie dogs.

This doesn’t mean all intentional wildfires are good. Many of the fires intentionally set for agriculture and land clearing are at best ill-advised, and at worst devastating. Slash and burn fires are set every day to destroy large sections of forests. Of course, these forests don’t just remove trees; they kill and displace wildlife, alter water cycles and soil fertility, and endanger the lives and livelihoods of local communities. They also can rage out of control. In 1997, fires set intentionally to clear forests in Indonesia escalated into one of the largest wildfires in recorded history. Hundreds of people died; millions of acres burned; already at-risk species like orangutans perished by the hundreds; and a smoke and ash haze hung over Southeast Asia for months, reducing visibility and causing acute health conditions.

When scientists think a fire could be the best solution for revitalizing wild areas, WWF brings the right experts to the table to study the situation and come up with a plan. All fire is risky. To minimize that risk as much as possible, controlled burns must be well-considered, well-planned, and ignited and maintained by trained professionals. Fire can be a tool for conservation, but only when used the right way.

Since 1990, “Wildland Fires” across Canada have consumed an average of 2.5 million hectares a year. These fires occur in forests, shrublands and grasslands. Some are uncontrolled wildfires started by lightning or human carelessness. A small number are prescribed fires set by authorized forest managers to mimic natural fire processes that renew and maintain healthy ecosystems. Wildland fires present a challenge for forest management because they have the potential to be at once harmful and beneficial. They can threaten communities and destroy vast amounts of timber resources, resulting in costly losses. However, wildland fires are a natural part of the forest ecosystem and important in many parts of Canada for maintaining the health and diversity of the forest. In this way, prescribed fires offer a valuable resource management tool for enhancing ecological conditions and eliminating excessive fuel build-up.

Not all wildland fires should or can be controlled. Forest agencies work to harness the force of natural fire to take advantage of its ecological benefits while at the same time limiting its potential damage and costs. This makes fire control strategies a vital component of forest management and emergency management in Canada. Understanding the complex phenomenon of wildland fire begins with understanding the basic physical aspects of fire and the ecological role of fire in forests and other wildland areas. Increasingly accurate assessments of the fire situation across Canada are now helping land managers use forest science to reduce fire risk and optimize the benefits.


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