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Wildfires play a crucial role in forest plant diversity

by Take Two®

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Firefighter Brandon Wenger stands along Highway 120 while monitoring a backburn during the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013. Jae C. Hong/AP

Most people think of fires as being bad, but few consider the good things that can come from them. 

For instance, fires can help clear out old debris, stimulate seed germination and encourage new plant growth. 

"We have plants in the area…that have seeds that are stored in the soil for long periods of time, essentially waiting for the heat of fire or effects of charcoal and that kind of thing and rain, water to stimulate them to germinate," said  Carl Skinner, U.S. Forest Service ecologist who's been doing work in the Stanislaus-Tuoloumne Experimental Forest. "We would expect that you would get a lot of that kind of germination, especially in more severe parts of the fire."

The experimental forest is used by scientists to study the ecology of different kinds of forests. The information they glean is then used to help the U.S. Forest Service to better manage these natural areas. They can also help scientists understand what happens to plant life when a wildfire like the Rim Fire ravages a forest. 

"A fire will affect biodiversity in many ways, it can cause a change  back to an earlier successional stage…so you end up with a whole suite of vegetation that wasn't there before," said Skinner. "[It can] bring back diversity that has been lost because the density of forests."

But while natural wildfires can have beneficial side effects, when they're as large and intense as the Rim Fire, the negative effects outweigh the positive. 

"I don't think of it as a silver lining, because the pattern left by this fire is probably way outside the bounds of what would have been something a natural fire in the past would have done," said Skinner. "What we'll probably end up with are very large areas of high severity that will be difficult for regeneration of the trees again. If that happens then it will probably revert to shrub fields, unless there is some kind of management or something to try and reestablish the forest"

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