Wild about Fire

Wild about Fire

pineconeWhy would you be wild about fire, you ask. Well, fire is an important tool in maintaining healthy natural ecosystems in all parts of the United States and around the world. Without fire some plants cannot even reproduce. The Digger Pine Tree found throughout California is a great example; without fire to heat up the pinecones, the seeds cannot fall out of the cone. This means that the seeds are "locked up" inside the pine cone unable to sprout or grow unless there is a fire.

Another example is tallgrass prairie grasses that are found thoughout the Great Plains and can grow to be 8 to 10 feet tall in one year (See photo on right)! But all that growth can be a problem. When the dead grass from prior years growth gets too thick the new shoots of grass coming out of the ground are unable to get any sunlight and without sunlight the grass dies. So these grasses need to have the old vegetaion burned up every few years to be able to stay alive.

Scientists call this time interval between fires in the same area "fire frequency". This time period varies greatly depending on the type of plants and the region of the country they grow in. For example, historically, here in Burns Oregon where we have sagebrush grasslands the fire frequency is estimated to be between 15 and 25 years. Historically, in the Great Plains states like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska the fire frequency for the Tallgrass Prairie is estimated to be every 3-5 years.

fireNow you are probably saying "But I thought fire was a BAD thing". Well, fires that get out of control and destroy homes or hurt people are bad. When fires do not harm people or destroy property, but instead, only burn vegetation; fire can be very good for that area. In fact, fire used as a tool at the correct time of year, in controlled situations can be very beneficial to many species of grasses, shrubs, and trees.

In fact, there are people who study fires called "Fire Ecologists" who know how to set "prescribed fires" that are used to help restore areas to the natural vegetation while protecting people and their homes. Prescribed fires are set under very controlled situtations and there are ALWAYS lots of people around with fire trucks and other equipment to put out any fire that tries to get away.

Here at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center we have several scientists who study how fire effects plants and how to use fire to improve the rangeland ecosystems. Currently the scientists here are using fire as a tool to control juniper trees (see the story about "Those Blasted Junipers"), as well as, restoring areas dominated by sagebrush to a sagebrush grassland. Using fire as a tool in this manner not only improves grazing for cattle but also improves habitat for wildlife. The scientists are also studying the fire scars on old trees to estimate how frequent and intense the historic fires were in this area. All of this information that they are learning helps to restore ecosystems and improve wildlife habitat.

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