On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 23rd, a fire broke out in the Steward North Woods. Fall had just begun, and it was a dry, hot day.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 23rd, a fire broke out in the Steward North Woods. Fall had just begun, and it was a dry, hot day. Just off the orange trail, a visitor of the woods noticed the distinct smell of smoke and called campus safety. Other visitors smelled it while they were trail running, hiking, and walking their dogs. The fire department was called, and they promptly arrived, found the small fire, and put it out.
However, this situation could have been much worse. It was a dry, windy day, meaning the fire could have spread easily. It was in the middle of the woods, meaning that if it had grown, it would have been difficult to extinguish.
As the North Woods Steward for the college, much of my time is spent cleaning up fire pits from partiers and trying to prevent future campfires from being built. Fire pits are under no circumstances allowed in Steward North Woods. Too many times I have found fire pits still in flames the morning after, with no attempt to fully put them out.
What happened last month could have been worse – much worse. In fact, before it was owned by Skidmore, the North Woods burned down entirely, destroying many of the trees and buildings previously inside. If it happened in the past, it can happen again. We therefore know that large scale forest fires have happened here, can happen here, and will happen here in the future. It is inevitable. But we can do our best to prevent them from happening while we are here. Shown in the figure below, New York is not immune to fire. Every year, whenever temperatures increase and the amount of rain decreases, along with many other factors, fire is prone to breaking out. Even our area of New York is not safe. During the time of the September fire, Saratoga was in moderate danger of a fire, indicating there could have been a problem had the fire spread.
Fire around the world is misunderstood. Although dangerous, destructive, and devastating, it is also a natural part of life, and vital to many ecosystems. Trees in forests have adapted to fire in many different ways, with various strategies to help them survive and thrive under fire conditions. Some of these adaptations include, but are not limited to: thick bark, fire-induced sprouts, serotinous (fire-activating) cones, and fire-activated seeds.
Fire can also increase soil fertility, by removing layers of decay on the surface and releasing nutrients. Animals, such as the Karner Blue Butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis), require the wild blue lupine in order to survive. These flower meadows are created and managed by wildfire, meaning the entire life of these endangered butterflies depend on wildfire. According to National Geographic, “Without fire, the lupines do not flourish, and the caterpillars cannot consume enough food to undergo metamorphosis and become butterflies.” Except in certain places, like the nearby Wilton Wildlife Preserve, where the balance of these flowers are maintained by managers, getting meadows such as these are only possible with fire. In addition, fire can help clear areas of invasive species that are not fire-adapted, and protect these ecosystems from outside invaders and competition.
Because of all of the benefits that fires provide certain ecosystems, forest managers have started to introduce prescribed, “controlled” burns to certain areas to mimic natural processes. Fire cannot actually be 100% controlled and predicted, but in many places it is better and safer to prescribe fire to an area than to wait for one to happen naturally. Prescribed fire “reintroduces the beneficial effects of fire into an ecosystem, producing the kinds of vegetation and landscapes we want, and reducing the hazard of catastrophic wildfire caused by excessive fuel buildup.”
Throughout the 20th century, the general consensus was that forest fires were bad and that “only you could prevent forest fires.” Although the thought of putting out all forest fires was in the right place, as it was saving money and lives in the short term, in the long term it was causing much more damage. Because fires were not allowed to occur naturally, all of the services they provided were not occurring, and litter and fuel were not being burned off. All of this contributed to much larger, and more dangerous fires in the future. Of course, when human towns and lives are at risk, there will be intervention, but in many cases fires should be allowed to burn themselves out. However, due to the type of ecosystem in addition to the proximity to campus, a wildfire in Steward North Woods would be devastating.
Fires do not impact everyone equally. In many parts of the country areas of high wildfire coincide with people of low socioeconomic status and with high social vulnerability. Not a large population of the United States is at risk; 0.3% of the United States population has a high social vulnerability and high wildfire potential, including about 372,000 housing units total. Although this number is just an estimation, it still shows the large number of people at risk, who likely cannot afford to move out of these first risk areas.
If things weren’t bad already, Climate Change is accelerating all of these problems. According to Alejandra Borunda, “Climate change exacerbates the factors that create perfect fire conditions. Lower precipitation and warmer air temperatures dry the forests and other vegetation. Add strong winds and decades of fire suppression into the mix and you have a dangerous recipe for wildfire.” Now more than ever, understanding how fires work is important. Since the 1970’s, the fire season in the west has been extended by at least 84 days, starting at 138 days on average from 1973 – 1982 and increasing to 222 days on average from 2003-2012.
With a mix of bad past management, in combination with climate change, fires today present a real threat. Better management of both our public lands, the climate, and the reckless people in these areas causing the fires are needed, as 85% of fires in the US are caused by humans. Here at Skidmore, the same is true. Far too often are illegal fire pits left unattended, not put out, and are still smoldering or burning the day after. Fires can have a large amount of benefits to certain ecosystems. However, a forest fire in the North Woods is not what we want, both from a public safety and ecological perspective.
Originally published at skidmore news