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The Purpose of Fire in the Wild
Since fire has made a big impact on the lives of everyone in our local communities last week, I just wanted to write a little something about the purpose of fire in nature—it’s characteristics, what it does, and how it contributes to Life. In ancient times fire was considered to be one of the four elements of life—earth, air, fire, water.
Today we consider fire to be destructive to our industrial lifestyle, but in times past, when we humans had more contact and experience with fire as part of life, fire was viewed in a very different way.
As an element of life, fire contributes to both creation and destruction. In the past fire was used to warm our homes, cook our food, and bring us light in the dark of night. In our modern industrial world, these needs are now fulfilled by electricity or gas from a central grid, but still, when we go camping or to a cabin in the woods, we may still experience the benefits of fire directly. But even now we can experience the warmth of fire directly from the sun.
On the destructive side, fire can burn fiercely, destroying everything in its path. But in Life, this is not a negative thing. Even in destruction, fire is clearing away the old to make space for new life.
Forest fires are a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Even healthy forests contain dead trees and decaying plant matter; when a fire turns them to ashes, nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation.
And, when fire rages through dry underbrush, it clears thick growth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and encourage the growth of native species. Fire frees these plants from the competition delivered by invasive weeds and eliminates diseases or droves of insects that may have been causing damage to old growth. Wildflowers begin to bloom abundantly.
Most young, healthy trees are resilient enough to survive a forest fire. After the fire, they will soon have spurts of growth spurts because flames thin light-blocking canopies above. And because remnants of burned trees offer attractive habitats to birds and small mammals, and nutrients from burned vegetation continue to leach into the soil to fuel the birth of new plants, young forests recovering from fires are also home to a greater diversity of plant and animal species.
Many ecosystems actually need fire to thrive. In one experiment that lasted nearly 40 years a 23-acre parcel of land was not allowed to burn for that entire time. As a result, plant diversity fell by 90 percent and one species of bird disappeared entirely. [source]
Like everything else in life, we need to learn how to work with the living systems in which we dwell, learn what they need and how we can contribute in a way that is beneficial for all Life. Native Americans would intentionally set and manage fires to clear away underbrush and create more space for new growth.
Here in California, it is my view that we need to learn the natural need for fire of our ecosystems and learn to live with fire in a way that is not destructive to our human lives. And we should not be setting needless fires by carelessness.
After the evacuation, I’m experiencing the “clearing away” aspect of fire. Even though I still have all my possessions, I’m feeling the opening of new space and new beginnings. Life WILL regenerate here. It always does.