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Forest fires: the good and the bad

forest fire Madagascar WW199886 Martina Lippuner

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, forest fire is synonymous with disaster. But there are some kinds of forest fires that actually benefit the environment.

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.

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 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.

ngp bison WW143616 Day's Edge

A bison in the Northern Great Plains.

This doesn’t mean all intentional wildfires are good – far from it. 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.

That’s exactly why WWF helps governments around the world crack down on slash and burn deforestation. WWF also works with farmers and companies to stop unnecessary agricultural burns. And when our scientists think fire could be the best solution for revitalizing wild areas, we bring 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. The bottom line? Fire can be a tool for conservation, but only when used the right way.