In my last round of research, I did research on what wildfires are exactly; how they work, what can cause them and factors that raise the intensity of the fire, just so I have a better understanding of them before I continue on to what kind of impact they have on the environment. For this round of research, I will investigate their impact on vegetation and wildlife, both the negative and positive effects.
Negative effects of wildfires on vegetation and wildlife
- Depending on the frequency and severity of it, wildfires may have devastating effects on ecosystems (1, 2, 3).
- Wildfires may destroy the vegetation and take away the habitats of wildlife (2, 4). It can disrupt the critical relationships between many plants and animals of the area, which can lead to a loss of ecosystems and biodiversity. By altering or killing the plant life that support so much wildlife, the fire is forcing the animals out of their habitat or is even killing them (2).
- Repeated wildfires will upset the natural cycles of forests by removing many native plant species and encouraging fire-resistant plants and other invasive plant species to grow there instead. Since some of those invasive plant species are extremely flammable, they will induce a continuous cycle in which the risk of future wildfires is elevated and will likely further destroy the native plant species (1).
- Many animals are killed or injured in wildfires (2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). Any animal is at risk of being killed in a fire, regardless of whether they are a new-born, a parent, or an animal without young too. New-borns are at a high risk of being killed since they don’t have much strength to flee, and their parents’ escape is in turn, delayed (7). The animals who have the highest risk of being killed in a wildfire are smaller animals such as birds, squirrels, rabbits, and snakes (2, 4, 9). Although it is not useful in the case of a fire, porcupines will climb up trees since it is their first reaction when there is danger. Squirrels will also scurry up to the top of trees. Meanwhile, burrowing animals who don’t dig deep enough may end up dying from being cooked in their burrows (7, 8). How likely an animal is to die from a fire depends on their species’ defence mechanisms. Birds of prey might be able to fly away and make it out just fine, but smaller birds that fly lower down in the sky might die from smoke inhalation or exhaustion (7).
Positive effects of wildfires on vegetation and wildlife
- While fires certainly have negative impacts on wildlife and vegetation, there are also many positive effects of wildfires as they are actually a part of the natural cycle in ecosystems (5, 6, 7, 8).
- There are certain trees and plants that depend on wildfires to bring conditions for germination (5, 6, 9). They may do so by heating up the soil and cracking seed coats which causes germination (5). Plants such as the flower Corydalis sempervirens need strong sunshine to grow and will only germinate once exposed to the heat from fires (6). The heat can also stimulate fungi such as morel mushrooms to release spores (9). Certain trees such as jack pine and lodgepole depend on the heat from a fire to open their cones and allow germination (6, 9). Kirtland’s warblers, small songbirds from MIchigan, nest in jack pine forests so if these trees don’t reproduce with the help of fires, these birds will lose a big part of their habitat. Therefore, if there aren’t any fires, some organisms wouldn’t be capable of reproduction, and anything that relies on them will be impacted (9).
- The period right after a wildfire is very important to some plants and wildlife. Animals such as deer, moose and elk that eat small shrubs like grasses and flowers are provided food in this period after a fire since there is then more room for the sunlight to reach the bottom of the forest to help the growth of the smaller plants that may not get enough sunshine and disappear when the forest grows back (5, 6, 7, 8).
- Even the dead standing trees and hollowed out logs that result from wildfires are useful to some wildlife. These dead hollowed out trees and logs provide good nesting spots and comfortable shelters for small animals (5, 7) such as woodpeckers, and many will move in (7).
So, as you can see, wildfires can have quite devastating effects on the surrounding vegetation and wildlife, but wildfires also play an important role for some species of plants and animals. This raises some questions: how much do we want to be preventing wildfires? That is, to what extent do we try to stop them from happening? Is it better to just let them happen naturally? Or maybe it would be better to allow them to occur, except find a way to control them more closely in a way that we can reduce the negative impact they have?
That’s all for this week! Next time, I will be researching the impact of wildfires on the surrounding water and soil. Any ideas, comments or websites are appreciated. Thanks for reading!