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Fire: Nature's grand contradiction

Fire is one of nature's grand contradictions.

When under control, working its way slowly through crackling logs surrounded by melon-sized rocks in a fire ring, it is pleasing and beneficial. When out of control, pushed by winds through dry prairie grasses, it is both dangerous and devastating.

For people who spend time outdoors, campfire is good and wildfire is bad. So for much of the last century, forest and prairie land managers went to great lengths to prevent or suppress fires that had the potential to burn large areas. This is an obvious choice in areas where uncontrolled fire could endanger human lives. Over the last couple of decades, however, researchers have learned more and more about the long-term benefits of fire to both grasslands and forests.

Fire is a good topic for this time of year because, according to the North Dakota Forest Service, about half of the state's wildfires occur in April, after the snow melts but before much of the year's new green grass begins to grow.

Fires were part of prairie and forest ecosystems for thousands of years. Prairie fires would burn off several years of dry dead grass and create fertile grounds for fresh, new growth. Lewis and Clark wrote about the pall of smoke in the air as they passed through the prairie states.

In forests, low intensity ground fires kept brush and small trees in check, while allowing fire-resistant older trees to survive and flourish. But by 1910, with settlement of the prairies and into the foothills of the country's great mountain forests, most land management agencies had chosen suppression as the method of dealing with naturally occurring wildfire, or fires that were accidentally started by humans. To simplify a complicated subject, fires were put out as soon as possible after they were discovered.

Over time, this suppression policy resulted in a build up of fuels — dead grasses, brush and trees — to artificially high levels. Even with suppression policies, however, fires still get started and sometimes escape control. When this happens, the intensity is often more severe than if periodic small fires had been allowed to burn.

Think of it this way. You can have several pleasant campfires with 50 logs spread out over time. If you burn all the logs at once, you wind up with a large bonfire that would probably be too hot to enjoy.

When years and years of plant material builds up, it also alters the environment for native plant and animal species, many times to the detriment of those species. When wildfires burn more intensely because of increased amounts of fuel, the landscape left behind can be particularly susceptible to erosion, which can in turn cause problems for watersheds and reestablishment of plants.

While periodic fire can benefit both grassland and forest, the only way that can occur in places where wildlands and settled areas meet without endangering human lives or property is under controlled conditions. Many land management agencies, including the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, use controlled fires managed by trained professionals to improve wildlife habitat in the long term. In all other cases, however, prevention and suppression is necessary to protect human welfare.

Nevertheless, wildfires started by nature or man still occur.

As spring breaks, much of North Dakota is dry. Last fall's vegetation is dead and spring's is not yet green. All of us who spend time outdoors should use extra caution when it comes to fires. Developers and rural homeowners, too, should take steps to protect their property. Even out on the prairie, wildfire is a threat. Much like homeowners who build their houses in a flood plain, people who live in the country need to understand the natural threat of fire and plan accordingly.

The North Dakota Forest Service, 701-328-9944, is an excellent resource for wildfire safety information, as is the website www.firewise.org.

But perhaps our greatest resource is our own common sense. When you're out fishing or turkey hunting or camping, be careful. It's dry (and windy!) out there.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Dept. He can be reached via email: dleier@state.nd.us.