A recent newsletter from the Endangered Wildlife Trust mentioned a planned burn to help save the habitat of the rough moss frog. What I found interesting about the story, is that it is using fire to help preserve a part of the environment. I think that when many people think about fire, they think it’s negative or destructive, like the recent fire that damaged the Jagger Reading Room at UCT, among other places, or the fire which destroyed the roof and spires of Notre Dame cathedral. Happily, repair work is about to start. However, fire can actually be a good thing and is necessary for the healthy functioning of many environments.
Fynbos, a vegetation type unique to South Africa, needs fire every 12-25 years. The fire serves multiple purposes, including returning nutrients to the soil, clearing space for new plants to grow and the smoke can even act as the trigger for seeds to germinate. In fact, not allowing the vegetation to burn can lead to future problems as you can see in Vox’s video about forest fires in the US. When there is too much fire suppression, a lot of flammable material builds up and, when a fire does eventually occur, it is far more severe than it would’ve otherwise been.
A second reason why the newsletter caught my attention is that I am involved in an ongoing project to assess the effects of fire on a grassland community. We’re doing this by examining a grassland field before it was burned, then burning it, watching how the burned area recovers and comparing it to areas that were not burned. I’m part of a team that’s examining the changes to the soil microbial community but there are multiple groups involved in the project, all examining different aspects of the recovery. I’ve visited the site regularly and it’s been really cool to see what has happened since the fire. Areas that were not burned are still covered with dry, yellow-brown grasses while the areas that were burned are now turning green with new growth.
In mythology, there is a bird known as the phoenix. When a phoenix would “die,” it would instead burst into flames and be reborn from the ashes. I think that is an appropriate metaphor for many environments which depend on fire. The forests, fynbos or grasslands grow old and, at a certain point, like the phoenix, they must be consumed by fire. This is not a fire of destruction but a fire of rebirth which clears away the old, dead material and makes a space for new plants to grow and allows the environment to become healthy once more.