Accelerating Global Warming increases the frequency, intensity, distribution, abundance, duration, and severity of wildfire. Already destructive windstorms have created great landscapes of forest debris providing abundant fuel for wildfire. As heat-waves decrease fuel moisture, we expect more lightning storms. We have reaped these firewhirls and the WUI cannot protect us.
Global warming creates vicious cyclical feedback loops. Surging deluges, floods, and landslides generate disturbances that provide portals for fire-prone invasive species. Insects and disease, augmented by droughts and higher temperatures, will intensify forest decline. Dying forests and microbes will release stored CO2, normally sequestered for centuries, from forest debris and soil. Worse, forests and soil will diminish their roles as Carbon Sinks that remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Also, forests decline functioning for flood control, transpiration-moisture rainfall, and nutrient creation and recycling.
However, wildfires still provide their ecological role now and they will with Global Warming. They enhance many ecosystem functions and services that humans depend on such as wildlife and habitats. Wildfires stimulate forest growth by generating clearings for young plants and provide immediate nutrient release from forest debris. They project distant fertilization, through mineral-rich carbon-compound particulates in smoke. They increase species diversity and patchiness. They can maintain seral clines, such as pines, and they replace stands of over-mature climax species with younger more productive species. Over time, wildfires may decrease CO2 emissions compared to relentless microbial decomposition. Wildfires hold vast amounts of carbon on site through heat and pyrolysis that render woody materials resistant to CO2 emission by microbial rot.
Solutions to increasing wildfire severity should focus on priorities that enhance safety, ethics, and ecology for firefighters, communities, and ecosystems. Safety for wildland firefighters means never putting them in harm’s way when low fuel moisture and advancing winds signal danger. Safety also means using proven methods to make communities more fire-permeable and ecosystems more fire-hardy. Prescribed fires make communities and ecosystems safe. A creative and experienced Burn Boss can craft a safe, fire-permeable landscape near communities and reduce fuel abundance and distribution. Remote lightning-ignited fires can safely restore fire-hardy ecosystems when properly managed and augmented. Because local conditions, resources, constituents, and insurance policies vary, appropriately safe responses must be region-dependent. Safe fire suppression may only be appropriate near communities and critical habitats that are not yet fire-permeable. Otherwise, fire managers should safely monitor, shepherd, and augment wildfire.
Ecological solutions to the problem of increased wildfire severity remain the best way to enhance ethical and safe wildland fire management. Healthy, safe, and fire-hardy ecosystems display abundant plant and wildlife diversity, sustainable nutrient cycling, and ecological services such as flood control, clean water, and carbon sinks for CO2 sequestration. Ecologically- savvy techniques can hold carbon on site. Land managers can initiate controlled burns during inversions, rain, or high humidity to maximize pyrolysis and carbonization of woody materials to make them unavailable to microbial decomposition. Controlled burns can maintain fire-permeable sites that favor low intensity wildfires. Ecological management can favor resilience, diversity, and improve soil and plant carbon sequestration. Managers can reseed with fire-hardy plant species or even augment air-dropped fire retardant with nutrients or fungal spores that favor carbon sequestration. Fire managers should develop an elite corps of ecologically shrewd Fire Rangers that achieve fire-permeable ecosystems by augmenting, monitoring and shepherding natural ignitions and controlled burns.