Smoky Forests Boast Good Health

Scientists say that fires benefit forest ecosystems

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Check it, Smokey the Bear: Turns out, we shouldn’t be preventing forest fires.

Since 1944, a big brown bear in a ranger’s cap has been warning the public about the dangers of forest fires. Smokey’s mantra, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” has traveled through decades and grade schools like, uh, wildfire.

But, it turns out that some large-scale forest systems, like the one that makes up Yosemite National Park, actually depend on fire to survive. According to fire ecologists, a healthy forest is a smoky forest.

Recently, scientists have come to realize that trees depend on fire to reproduce. Without fire, leaves and other vegetation accumulate thickly along the forest floor, affecting a seed’s ability to germinate. Furthermore, a dense forest canopy prohibits the seed from receiving the necessary sunlight for growth.

Additionally, without fire, decades of vegetative fuel would continue to build up. And once lit, look out!

The cause of most fires in a park like Yosemite is lightning at higher altitudes. Generally, these fires are relatively small and move slowly. Today, at lower elevations, rangers perform frequent, controlled fires to regulate forest vegetation.

In 2001, Smokey altered his mantra: Today, he tells our children “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” Although Smokey’s message still reminds us to be careful and responsible around fire, the big bear’s chang in tune makes it clear that sometimes small fires prevent the big ones, and keep our forests thriving to boot.

–-Jessie Lucier

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