How Do Wildfires Help Control Plant Disease? - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

How Do Wildfires Help Control Plant Disease?

With so many wildfires spreading across many parts of western America, there has been a tremendous amount of destruction and great losses of natural resources as a result of it. What a lot of people don’t realize, however, is that some good can also come from wildfires as it relates to controlling plant disease.  Read on to learn more.

How Wildfires Can Hurt the Environment

What many have been able to witness with the naked eye in terms of the massive destruction caused by fires, they have not been able to witness in terms of the damage caused by smoke. It can have a huge impact on the environment – particularly the quality of the air and water.

The Impact Smoke Has on Air Quality

Smoke from wildfires is comprised of a mixture of gases, microscopic particles as well as water vapor. Although these particles are normally very small, the human body has challenges filtering them out of its airways. Unfortunately, these particles also get lodged deep within the lungs which cause breathing to become compromised in some individuals and is known to add additional stress to the heart. Not to mention other issues such as the runny nose, irritation to the eyes and greater health risks for individuals with respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.

As these particles enter into the air, they are virtually undetectable with the naked eye as most are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which is just 1/70th of the size of a strand of hair.

Technically referred to as PM2.5, these tiny particles and other pollutants travel far enough to nearby neighborhoods further polluting the air. The larger fires tend to have more energy that pushes the smoke throughout the atmosphere. However, since the smaller fires do not have as much energy, they do not impact the atmosphere as severely as the larger fires. For the most part, however, it’s the larger fires, that have the greatest impact on the atmosphere as they travel along with the current wind conditions.

The Impact Smoke Has on Water Quality

Just as smoke from wildfires has an impact on the air quality it also has an impact on the water quality as well. It can have an impact on the chemical, physical and biological quality that affects the lakes, streams, rivers, and reservoirs.

The wildfires also increase the stormwater runoffs. Wildfires increases in the loss of vegetation, which in turn causes the soil to become hydrophobic whereby it fails to mix well with water.  Typically the plant life decreases the precipitation after it hits the landscape and allows it to slowly seep into the ground. But after a fire has taken place, the soil that is free of foliage does not absorb water very easily. In fact, the burn scars tend to increase the runoff providing a means to transport debris, and other particles into lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. In addition to that, there is an elevated amount of nutrient concentrations found in bodies of water.

Although wildfires typically have a negative effect on the environment, it can help control plant disease by burning plants that contain various diseases, thus preventing the further spread of such diseases. Wildfires have also been known to kill insects known to spread disease and infect plants, such as bark beetles and similar insects that spread destructive diseases.

How Wildfires Can Help the Environment

Many of us see fires as a form of destruction to our natural resources, our personal properties, and human life, but a controlled wildfire is actually something that could help the environment.

Controlled wildfires are fires that are set intentionally for a specific, well thought out reason. These very well-managed controlled wildfires can be beneficial for better managing the forest. Controlled fires that are intentionally set can actually help stop existing fires that are out of control. This takes place with the use of a technique referred to as backburning.  Back burning consists of starting a fire in the same path that an existing fire is traveling towards. As the existing fire approaches the controlled fire, the flammable material is burned up so that by the time the existing fire arrives, the fuel has dried out – which stops the initial fire from burning.

Controlled burns can also be useful in other ways as well. They can prevent forest fires from occurring altogether. The low-intensity natural wildfires that occur every other year or so are designed to burn up plant debris, fuel, and dead trees. When this takes place, it actually makes it possible for healthier trees and vegetation to grow. This new growth and plant life provide support to the forest and wildlife.

The practice of starting controlled fires is the strategy that makes it possible for a healthier forest to grow over time. The downside of this method is that fires also have an impact on wildlife, soil fertility, and water cycles. For this reason, many fire retardant sprays, such as PHOS-CHEK Wildfire Home Defense, will contain fertilizer to encourage plant and tree growth following a brushfire.

Although forest fires are normally associated with destruction, losses and other negativities, it can also be a great benefit to the environment in the following ways:

  • Wildfires can revitalize the chemistry found in soil and can act as an increase in the food source for fish and other wildlife. It can also replenish the vegetation found along the streams and can recycle nutrients and fire-adapted plants.
  • Wildfires involving intermittent burning cause an increase to biodiversity which occurs when environmental changes are induced. This results in enhancing both the plant and animal communities that have become better adapted to fires. Some refer to this as resetting the clock for the ecosystem in that fires can cause the ecosystem to develop and flourish for hundreds of years as a result of the fires.
  • A decrease in the annual accumulation of fuel also takes place when intermittent burning takes place. In doing so, the amount of fuel buildup is reduced.
  • Low-growing underbrush is removed during wildfires by clearing out the forest floor, it clears out debris while providing nourishment to the soil. In fact, the established trees can become stronger and healthier by removing the need to compete for nutrients.

These are just a few of the benefits associated with the positive impact that wildfires have on plants, trees, and vegetation.

Are Wildfires Good for Plants and Trees?

Most people automatically think that wildfires are definitely not good for plants and living things. Surprisingly, that’s not the case. Even though severe damages take place during wildfires, they have been known to be a natural and important part of sustaining the ecosystem. A healthy forest can become decayed from dead trees and other plants that have decayed and eaten away at healthier trees. However after a fire takes place, it turns dead matter into ashes which become nutrients that go back into the soil.

Fires also clear out the thick matter and dry debris found underbrush, which allows sunlight to shine on the forest floor. This is responsible for improving growth and replenishing healthier plants, trees, and vegetation.

Since invasive weeds also develop and causes competition among healthy plants and other healthy vegetation, it also eliminates diseases and insects that cause damages and diseases, which ultimately impacts growth.

Additionally, many wildflowers will start to bloom in abundance after forest fires take place.  In fact, forest fires actually play a very vital role in the natural life cycle of both plants and wildlife.

There’s something else that we probably don’t think about as it relates to forest fires, and that is that wildfires become an opportunity to eliminate the accelerated growth of fuel such as leaves, dead trees, and branches as well as eliminating the dense forest area that builds up over time.

Forest fires also rejuvenate the soil, while it eliminates various invasive species – all while promoting healthier and stronger plants.

Many plants and trees have developed a resilience towards fires and as a result, have developed a thicker bark and buds found beneath the ground as well as cones that only open when they’ve been heated.

To that end, fire-adapted, also referred to as fire dependent species won’t bud or flourish unless they’re burned. Consequently, these particular species of plants benefit more from fires than others. They simply cannot survive at all or reproduce without the occurrence of a fire. For example, the Jack Pine and the Black Spruce Trees have cones that only open when a fire has extremely hot temperatures. They then release seeds at that time.

How do Wildfires Interact with Plant Disease?

Fires don’t normally destroy microbe communities but rather change their composition in that certain fungi and bacteria have symbiotic relationships. It often dictates which of the nutrients will become available to vegetation in a particular area. In other words, if a fire destroys specific microbes communities in vegetation, the plants that normally rely on them may have challenges reestablishing themselves within the ecosystem.  In fact, many bacterial species and certain fungi were found in greater abundance after the occurrence of a wildfire. More particularly at locations that had fires with a higher intensity and others.

Microbes also assist with maintaining the health of ecosystems by decomposing various organic matters and preparing nutrients to be absorbed by plants.

To conclude, it’s the microbes that best defines the landscape that surrounds them after a fire occurs. Even though a lot takes place concerning the soil environment, the microbes are what determines which direction leads them to the road to recovery.





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