Wildfires, while dangerous, can help ecosystems

Wildfires are destructive forces, but they can occur naturally. Certain plants and animals...
Wildfires are destructive forces, but they can occur naturally. Certain plants and animals depend on periodic wildfires for balance in their ecosystem.(Humberto Giles-Sanchez)
Published: Oct. 31, 2022 at 9:11 PM CDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - The Palmer Gulch fire is a good reminder that wildfires aren’t limited to the summer. And, while wildfires can be devastating, there is also some good that can come from them.

Usually, a wildfire refers to an uncontrolled fire, but according to National Geographic, “the term ‘wildland fire’ is broader and includes fires purposefully set as part of prescribed burns.” All fires have the possibility of becoming dangerous.

But for many ecosystems, these periodic fires help by clearing out dead organic materials that have built up on the ground over time that, once burned, release helpful nutrients into the ground.

“Nitrogen is a really big one released into the soil. And one of the really nice things about what this fire can do is that it’ll remove a lot of that duff and needle cast build-up,” said Brian Rafferty, Palmer Gulch Wildfire planning section chief. “So, that’ll allow a lot of the fine herbaceous fields to grow which is really good for wildlife habitat as well.”

Wildfires are destructive forces that can be started naturally or by humans and with the flames comes the stigma that the fire is always bad for the ecosystem.

“There are benefits of having a wildfire, so the Black Hills National Forest and the area surrounding the Black Hills is what we call a fire-dependent ecosystem,” said Rafferty. “Which really means that fire does need to burn occasionally through the system in order for that stand to be healthy.”

While it might seem counterintuitive that a fire, which burns plant life and endangers animals, could promote ecological health, the Palmer Gulch Wildfire, which started the last weekend of October, could do just that.

“What this fire will hopefully do is reduce the surface fuels that have accumulated on the ground over time. Especially those surface fuels that were really in 2012, 2013, and 2014 from the mountain pine beetle epidemic,” said Rafferty.

Rafferty added that when it comes to trees in the area, they will likely be able to tell how much of the stand survived the fire in a year or two.

“But you will see a lot of the green grasses and the herbaceous fuel come back relatively soon,” said Rafferty, “So, next spring this area will be nice and green with a lot of new grass.”

In the end, while it is true that the burden of preventing uncontrolled wildfires lies with us, the experts say nature needs fires and benefits from the periodic burning.