Not All Wildfires Are Bad: How Controlled Burns Can Be Medicine for the Land
Deborah Landau, the Director of Ecological Management at The Nature Conservancy, has worked on more than 100 prescribed burns. Here's what she has to say about the beneficial Indigenous practice.
Deborah Landau, the Director of Ecological Management at The Nature Conservancy, has a passion for restoration. Through her work in the Maryland/DC chapter, Landau works to ensure that natural communities are thriving and resilient, goals achieved through planting, invasive species management, monitoring, and—perhaps surprisingly to some—prescribed burns, planned wildfires that encourage ecosystem restoration and natural biodiversity.
Landau is an Engine Boss and Firing Boss, helping to plan, implement and manage burns across a wide range of landscapes—and monitoring the regenerative powers of fire. She's also part of TNC's Women-in-Fire Training Exchange (WTREX), a training program that encourages women to get into the fire field.
Here, five things you should know about fire, nature, and more.
5 Things You Should Know About Fire and Prescribed Burns
1. Indigenous Peoples Used Fire Strategically
“In North America and throughout the world, Indigenous peoples have been setting fires to shape our natural communities, and it's often lost on us today," says Landau.
Controlled burns have indeed been utilized globally for millennia, improving the health of the land and minimizing the risk of larger wildfires while lending to ceremonies and more.
Now, conservationists are looking to this Indigenous approach to help mitigate modern (and incredibly destructive) wildfires.
2. Fire Can Restore Ecosystems and Biodiversity
Fire is a natural medicine for the land. When employed correctly, and under healthy conditions, fire clears debris, allowing nutrients to enter the soil and encouraging germination.
This cleansing also promotes greater biodiversity (plant, animal, and insect alike) and heartier ecosystems that can withstand pests and drought, store adequate amounts of water, and more
"And that's really what we're working towards is coming back to that healthy, resilient, diverse landscape that [Indigenous populations] had shaped," Landau says.
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3. Trees Have Adapted to Fire
Landau notes that drought-resistant trees like oaks, some yellow pines, and more have adaptations that protect them from the harsher effects of fire. These include thick, chunky bark and deep roots, the elements combining to insulate the majority of the tree should a wildfire occur.
Even the leaves play a part in healthy a healthy fire ecosystem. "The leaves of an oak tree, when they fall, crawl up, so when they stack together on the ground they're creating these fluffy dry substrates so that when a fire comes through, those dry crunchy oak leaves are just going to pull that fire across," says Landau.
Conversely, mesic (or wet) trees shed leaves that trap moisture, eventually creating wet mats that impede a fire's natural progress.
4. Climate Change Makes Wildfires Worse
Climate change means hotter temperatures and longer dry spells. Unsurprisingly, conditions combine for greater potential for frequent and drastic wildfires. And without prescribed burns, the forests are not conditioned to withstand the weather.
"With climate change, we know that we're going to get longer periods of extended drought. We're losing our fire-dependent or fire-adapted trees that are so drought tolerant, and we're getting more of these water-loving mesic trees," says Landau. "Over time, when we get these droughts, the entire forest will be more stressed, more susceptible to insect disease, and it'll be less resilient and less ready to handle the stressors of climate change.”
5. Fire Is a Male-Dominated Field
While fire is a male-dominated field, TNC’s Women-in-Fire Training Exchange is working to change that. WTREX brings participants of all genders and experience levels together for nearly two weeks of training and networking with the goal of encouraging a more diverse and accessible field.
"In the United States, 84% of the federal wildland fire workforce is male,” says Landau. “WTREX really gives women a safe environment to work together to do the work they love, which is you're restoring landscapes with fire, but in a way where they can collaborate together."
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