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Elemental Forest Fire Basics

A Brief Summary of Forest Fire in Nature


Prescribed Fire

Picture Perfect Fire Off Firebreak

Photo by Steve Nix
Elemental Forest Fire Basics

Running, Preheating Ground Wildfire

Steve Nix, Photo Licensed to About.com

Forest Fire and Nature

Fire and forests go back to the prehistoric, they have been with with each other for millions of years. The temperate world's forest ecosystem has developed with forest fire as a preeminent partner, a re generator, and rejuvenatory. This fire / forest symbiosis is as it should be but more complicated, at times, than we might want it..

Only when modern man entered the picture did nature, through her close relationship with the forest fire, seem to become frisky and rebellious. Stopping that "natural process" has given much anxiety to forest users and forest managers. Not stopping the process has given just as much heartburn.

Forest Fire and Science

There are so many working parts to cover to do justice when explaining wildfire. Fire behavior and modeling, fire weather, wildfire management, prescribed burning - an endless list of subjects that are collectively called fire science. However, I can briefly introduce you to some terminology and Internet sites where you can explore the subject at your leisure.

A glossary is included to make your visit a little easier. Let's start with the scary stuff...

Forest Fire and Tragedy

As early American populations increased, the inevitable battle between nature and man evolved. More often than not nature won, even as this urban interface expanded westward.

On October 8, 1871, the Peshtigo, Wisconsin forest fire consumed over 1.2 million acres of timberland. In its wake, 1,182 people were killed. This fire is considered to be the most deadly fire on American historical record. The 1910 "Big Blowup" fire in northeast Washington, northern Idaho, and western Montana sucked up 3 million acres...3 MILLION. This is more than the size of several American states.

An excellent report of a more recent tragedy is reported in a general technical report written by Richard C. Rothermel. This documentary, called "Mann Gulch Fire: A Race That Couldn't Be Won", describes the final 20 minutes of a smoke jumper firefighting crew and the fire that overran 16 men in 1948. Several persons escaped to tell the story.

Another fire called the South Canyon or Storm King Mountain Fire killed 14 firefighters and prompted major changes in field communications and fire weather reports. I have compiled a photo journal of that killing field near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

These two fires were just a part of many disasters "modern forest fire disasters"that have changed United States forest fire fighting policy. I have also created a collection of the most "tragic wildfires since 1950".

Forest Fire Fighting

You get the picture. Forest fires can be bad news; many organizations work to learn about wildfire and promote knowledge and safety. One wildfire education site has been developed to address the educational, safety and training aspects of fire and fighting fire in forests. The National Interagency Wildfire Center is only one of many fire related sites that explore wildfire education and training issues; tough issues with problematic answers.

The U.S. Forest Service provides great instruction and tools for those people interested in fire, fire managers, people making prescription burns, and for fire fighters. The Service's Fire Behavior Research Unit in Missoula, Montana, displays several daily fire weather maps based on fire danger ratings (see NIFC ). Find many of their maps including Observed Fire Danger Class and the Forecasted Fire Danger Class for your area.

Forest Fire and Prescribed Burning

Prescribed burning is a completely different story which I also address. For the record, let me say that prescribed fires, particularly in states with Jack pine and Longleaf pine, have long been seen as a forester's friend. Prescribed fire has to be used for these species' survival where exclusion of fire by state fire protection agencies (to protect man and his property) has excluded the benefits of fire.

A counterpoint to suppression of fire is written by George Werthner for Earth First! Journal . His "Forest Fire as an Endangered Ecosystem Process: The Ill Legacy of Smokey the Bear" maintains that suppression of fire is bad, is modifying the environment, and firefighters who are "money grubbing mercenaries out to kill fires" should leave wildfire alone and let the forest burn. You should read his fiery report. No pun intended...touchy issues with extremely differing viewpoints.

More From the About.com Series:

Introduction to Wildland Fire

Fire Behavior and Weather

Prescribed Fire


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