At last week’s Southern Sierra Prescribed Fire and Smoke Symposium in Clovis, California, Nick Goulette of the Hayfork Watershed Research and Training Center shared an excellent website called GoodFIRES, a collaborative project of thirteen state forestry agencies in the southeastern United States. Click through the pages of GoodFIRES for a primer on the theory, practice, and benefits of prescribed burning.
Over the course of the morning at the Clovis symposium the overall message of the speakers — fire scientists, land managers, and air-quality regulatory agency staff — became clear: Fire is good. Smoke is bad. Prescribed fire reduces fuel, the speakers told us. It prevents large, catastrophic wildfires, and it helps animals and plants by keeping their habitats healthy. Smoke, on the other hand, is another matter. The consensus at the symposium seemed to be that smoke is a pernicious nuisance, a pollutant to be controlled and minimized — especially here in the San Joaquin Valley, where weather patterns, topography, and countless sources of pollutants keep Fresno and other Valley cities near the top of the nation’s most-polluted lists.
So went the overriding discussion theme, until North Fork Mono Tribal Chairman Ron Goode rose to make a comment. Our oak trees need smoke to produce good acorns, he said. Maybe we need a broader definition of health, he hinted. His comments reminded me of what North Fork Mono elder Melvin Carmen told me a few years ago: “We’ve got to put smoke on those trees.”
Now, I like clean air as much as anybody else. My family, with our asthmatic tendencies, has suffered since our move from the relatively clean air of San Diego County’s backcountry to Fresno in 2006, and I love the view of the Sierra from Fresno and Clovis on a clear day — a view that is the very picture of “purple mountains majesty.” But on a smoky day, my wheezing and my inability to cast my gaze on the snowy peaks a few dozen miles away don’t stop me from appreciating the benefits that smoke provides.
Ron Goode’s comments at the fire and smoke symposium prompted me to ask one of the UC Berkeley fire scientists in attendance whether he knew of any current researchers working on the ecological effects of smoke, and he replied that he did not.
So I got busy on my smart phone and googled this up: http://www.fusee.org/docs/issues/FUSEE_SmokeSignals5_print.pdf
Here’s an interesting excerpt from pp.4-5 of that document:
The Need for Smoke
…[S]moke from wildfire has decreased seven-fold compared to pre-suppression times. Skies were consistently more smoky and hazy in the past, as fires burned frequently and naturally across the landscape. In 1898, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, Chief of the federal Division of Biological Survey, wrote: “Of the hundreds of persons who visit the Pacific coast in California to see the mountains, few see more than the foreground and a haze of smoke which even the strongest glass is unable to penetrate.” …
The concept of a “smoke deficit” may seem strange. One might say that if smoke contributes to air pollution, then smoke is only a detriment. Yet within the larger ecosystem context, smoke plays a necessary role. For reasons still being studied, the seeds of some plant species require exposure to smoke in order to germinate. Smoke also keeps certain insect populations and tree pathogens at bay. Excluding all smoke therefore could interrupt the natural cycles and environments in which these plants live. As scientists continue to document the many natural and necessary ecological functions of fire, so too they are discovering related beneficial effects of smoke.
There are a few other fragments of research on smoke floating around in the scientific literature. For instance, in Introduction to Fire in California, David Carle writes:
Whispering bells (Emmenantha penduliflora) germinate when exposed to the nitrogen dioxide in smoke for as little as one minute.
And Kat Anderson wrote in a 2009 report for the National Plant Data Center:
It is possible that the smoke from the fires curtailed oak diseases. It is known that smoking foods reduces microbial activity, yet the effects of smoke generated from burning plant materials has rarely been studied in forest ecosystems.
Yes, breathing too much smoke can be detrimental to our health. But if we inquire further, perhaps we’ll find that smoke has its health benefits, too — for us and for the land. Maybe we’ll all agree, eventually, with Australia’s Traditional Knowledge Revival Pathways project that fire and smoke lead to healthy country and healthy people:
During a rainy spell I sometimes hear people say, “You know, I sure am tired of all this rain, but I know we need it.” Maybe someday word will get around — after all, where there are GoodFIRES there may eventually be a GoodSMOKE website and other good educational resources — and we may even start to hear during fire season, “You know, I sure am tired of all this smoke, but I know we need it.”