Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Wetlands and Fire

Fire is in the news.  The Station Fire in California (one of 10 active wildfires in the U.S.) has been in the headlines since August 26 and is now 56% contained http://www.inciweb.org/incident/1856/.  Two firefighters have been killed by the blaze, 91 structures destroyed and 145,000 plus acres burned.  There is a homicide and arson investigation underway.

2009 is also the year that Smokey the Bear celebrates his 65th birthday. http://www.smokeybear.com/

Fire can be catastrophic as demonstrated by the Station Fire.  Fire can also be beneficial.  There are many factors, but the difference generally lies with the intensity (temperature) of the fire, which is dictated largely by the amount of fuel available, how dry it is, etc.  Grass fires are ‘relatively’ cool.  Forest fires are often much hotter.  And if there is a lot of dead wood lying on the ground, they are very hot.

Cool fires free up nutrients and encourage plant growth.  Hot fires burn everything leaving the soil sterile and susceptible to erosion.

In the mid 90s I was running a national wildlife program and I queried wildlife biologists around the country to find out what the most useful wildlife practices might be.  The answer I heard most often was fire.

Specifically, grass fires for prairie grasslands.  Short and tall grass prairies exist on a only a tiny fraction of their historic extent.  Some types of grasslands are more endangered than wetlands.  Biologists told me fires–cool fires–could re-start the prairie ecosystem by establishing the early successional grassland plants which are critical to ground nesting birds and other grassland species.

But fire is dangerous even when it is carefully controlled and nowadays there are also concerns about air pollution with so many people with respiratory problems nowadays and visibility on highways, which can be obscured by smoke.  One biologist from Florida told me that even with all the permits in place, they knew they would only be able to burn until the local fire department showed up to stop the fire.

What I did not think about at the time was that many of the forests and grasslands dependent on fire to sustain their structure also contain wetlands.  Examples include the prairie potholes, the everglades, the boreal forest, playas, vernal pools, etc.  But there has been less research on the role of fire in wetlands compared to terrestrial landscapes.  This is demonstrated by a somewhat dated bibliography on wetlands and fire from the excellent Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.

Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Bibliography Summary
http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/firewild/trends.htm

Annotated bibliography (1988)
http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/firewild/

Fire and wetlands is an area where more research is needed particularly given the concerns about fires in peatlands in arctic and tropical environments, which can put enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere accelerating global warming.

Can fire be an effective tool for wetland management nowadays?  Some of the studies that are available provide some interesting insights in the possibilities as well as some of the pitfalls to avoid.

Wetlands and Fire (Australia 2000)
http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/literatr/firewild/

Wetlands on Fire in Southeast Asia (1997)
http://www.ramsar.org/cda/ramsar/display/main/main.jsp?zn=ramsar&cp=1-31-117%5E17825_4000_0__

Fire Ecology of Pond Cypress Wetlands
http://www.forestencyclopedia.net/p/p263

Fire in wetlands/peatlands of Indonesia: Problem and Solutions. (powerpoint)
http://www.cifor.cgiar.org/fire/pdf/pdf76.pdf

Cattle grazing fire and wetland management (Florida)
http://www.reeis.usda.gov/web/crisprojectpages/206851.html

Fire Cycles in Pocosins
http://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural_heritage/documents/fspocosins.pdf

Waterfowl production and effects of fire on wetlands in the Pah River Flats (Alaska)
http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/ak/aktest/ofr.Par.95521.File.dat/OFR%2050.pdf

Fire, Mowing and Hand-removal or woody species in restoring a native wetland prairie in Willamette Valley of Oregon.  http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1672/0277-5212%282001%29021%5B0135%3AFMAHRO%5D2.0.CO%3B2

Also on Smokey Bear Website:
Real Time Fire Map: http://www.smokeybear.com/wildfire-map.asp
Fire Dependent Ecosystem Map http://www.smokeybear.com/natural-fire.asp (the chaparral forest link isn’t working properly)

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