Wildfires are a natural part of many ecosystems, but the 2020 wildfire season was different. In California alone, more than a million acres burned to the ground while fires raged all across the globe — including Siberia and Australia — killing people, livestock, and wildlife. And it is no coincidence that the six worst wildfire seasons all happened in the last decade.
Rebirth by fire
Although the destruction wrought by wildfires may always seem a calamity, it is often a natural and necessary part of the life of many ecosystems. Grasslands in particular benefit from the purging by fire as it prevents the vegetation from overgrowing and turning into forests, which don’t make an appropriate habitat for many grasslands species.
In woodland areas, animals are usually well adapted to escaping the flames and many species can’t thrive without the seasonal fires. Some plants seed only after a blaze, while many animal species rely on the burned areas to feed and reproduce.
What went wrong in 2020
We’ve always had a love-hate relationship with fire; needed for warmth and protection from wild animals, but dreaded because of its destructive powers. Now, as most fires are successfully extinguished, the flames can’t do their job of clearing out the forest floor. As the dead vegetation builds up, it can then fuel a wildfire much larger than that required by the ecosystem. Reaching the canopy level, it can easily get out of control, causing harm not only to wildlife, but also to people.
The process of human activity disrupting the natural cycle of wildfire has been going on for decades, but last year it certainly didn’t help that 2020 went down in history as the hottest year on record, tying with 2016. The unusually hot weather resulted not only in an increased number of wildfires, but also of other destructive phenomena, such as hurricanes.
What has to change in 2021
Smokey the Bear helps children understand the risks associated with fires, but it is adults who need to implement critical changes if we are to avert a catastrophe.
The onus for action is on politicians and big corporations, but personal choices are equally important. There are many ways in which we as individuals can reduce our daily carbon footprint.
Only with global temperatures staying within the prescribed threshold can wildfires remain a force for good, and not a disaster.