Backer, D.M., S.A. Jensen, and G.R. McPherson. 2004. Impacts of Fire-Suppression Activities on Natural Communities. Conservation Biology 18: 937-946.
Working as a wildland firefighter in the Cariboo last summer was, hands down, the best, most exciting job I have ever encountered. Who wouldn’t enjoy flying around in helicopters, using chainsaws, blasting fire with water, working with awesome people, and getting to see some amazingly beautiful and remote areas of BC? As the 2013 fire season approaches, I find myself getting more and more excited to jump back into the action.
One aspect that I haven’t considered much about fire suppression is the ecological and environmental effects. Although firefighters in BC attempt to minimize disturbance and use “light-hand-on-the-land” tactics, there are still many adverse impacts of current firefighting methods that have been documented (See Table 1). A review composed by Backer et al. summarizes these consequences that often occur by organizing the paper around the four Greek elements (Earth, Air, Water, and Fire). The act of stopping a fire always damages a given ecosystem in some ways. This is not surprising, as resources such as heavy equipment and chemicals are often used. In some cases, the results of suppressing fire may surpass the ecological impacts of the actual fire.
Fire suppression operations can affect Earth in several ways. One of these impacts is the exacerbation of erosion and soil compaction through the building of areas such as fire lines, camps, roads, and helipads. Movement of fire crews from one area to another also allows for the spread of invasive species, especially non-native plants. Chemicals involved with fighting fire are another concern. For example, suppressant foams can remove the outer layer of wax from some plants, making them vulnerable.
Air is disturbed at times when aircraft and vehicles release retardant particulants, create noise pollution, and burn fossil fuels. Aircraft activity may also disturb animals such as nesting bald eagles.
Fire suppression can also influence bodies of Water because of the associated erosion, sedimentation, turbidity, and contamination. These factors can affect aquatic plants, animals, and human drinking water sources. For example, eutrophication and fish kills have been observed after retardant has been incidentally dropped into streams by aircraft.
At times, firefighters engage in backfire operations, which basically involves fighting fire with Fire (the last Greek element). These backfires are often large and burn hotter than the fire being suppressed. This is a concern as more habitat can be disturbed, especially if the fire is extremely hot. The accidental spilling of fuels used to light these fires can also be toxic to many organisms.
To decrease these potential environmental outcomes, fire suppression techniques should be modified to cater to these issues. For example, natural barriers should be exploited to contain fire when possible to avoid using heavy machinery, clearing habitat, and increasing erosion. In many situations, if resources or human lives are not threatened by fire, it may also be less harmful to leave the fire alone and let it burn. Overall, an understanding of these impacts should be taken into account while carrying out fire suppression activities.
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Below are some photos that I took last summer.