Forest fires, should we let them burn for the birds?

With all the thick smoky haze and people with respiratory issues and regular folk (I know my eyes are burning) affected in Vancouver right now from the forest fires in the interior, it is hard to grasp that concept. I was travelling through the interior in July and one day in Kamloops for instance I couldn't breathe without coughing. The smell of smoke was the worst I've ever experienced. Other parts of the interior were smoky hazes like what is happening in Vancouver right now. With 122 fires still burning in BC and many who have lost their homes, my heart goes out to all affected and to those men and women fighting the fires, saving lives in the process. Many people affected couldn't even fathom the thought of not fighting fires, that could destroy property, wildlife, livelihoods and human lives.

This recent article "Let Forest Fires Burn" by the NY Times, suggests it is best to leave up to 20 million acres a year of backcountry fires (not bordering homes) burning. They argue that by doing so birds, like the uncommon Black-backed Woodpecker can flourish. It also argues that too many lives are lost fighting fires and this would prevent that. Black-backed Woodpeckers eat grubs and bugs that inhabit dead burned trees. They are one animal that loves forest fires.... well the after effects. Allowing fires to burn or even creating forest fires that are monitored controlled burns allows the forests to thin out and new growth to emerge.

When I was at Rock Creek in BC in July I saw 2 Black-backed Woodpeckers along with Lewis's, American Three-toed, Downy, Hairys and Northeen Flickers feasting on the burned smorgasbord. I also noticed the new growth coming out from the ground. The dark completely black trees were surrounded at the base by gorgeous bright colourful flowers! It was beautiful to see the new growth emerging from the destruction. A few people lost their homes in this fire and it certainly brought a sense of new life and hope.

In North America and other parts of the world, they do allow for controlled burns but most forest fires are suppressed if possible. The article suggests the amount of fire suppression currently being done in North America is far too much and is negatively impacting many hundred species of animals (not just the Black-backed Woodpecker). They also feel governments should stop spending billions on fire suppression but more on fireproofing homes.

The counter argument is that fire spreads quickly and a backcountry fire can quickly spread over acres to nearby homes and property. This happened recently in Clinton, BC where controlled fires by the gov't suddenly went out of control and destroyed their livelihoods and killed their livestock. What an awful way for those poor animals can die. You can read the farmer's perspective on the issue and why they are demanding compensation over what happened at the CBC news story HERE. Also, air quality from the allowance of such large areas of forest burning could be detrimental to children, the elderly and asthmatics. I also feel that allowing fires to rage can kill mammals and other wildlife that can't get out quick enough. Some scientists believe that allowing fires to burn would cause many species to go extinct.

As I said, at this time when our province is suffering so much and up in flames, it is a sensitive issue and one I'm not sure what the right answer is but I'm leaning towards fire suppression. I think Climate Change will unfortunately create enough fires that will change the forest ecology too much. I feel that this will be detrimental to other forest animals, even if the Woodpeckers would thrive. As birders we tend to have tunnel vision and focus only on the birds and I certainly do think it's important to focus on their conservation and well being. However, there is more to life than birds alone, in my opinion and we can't forget that. My friend Dr. John Reynolds reminded me of that when we were birding together and discussing the return and restoration of sand dunes. I was worried about the price that some birds would pay for this, especially the ones that forage and nest in the understory that were removed. I totally disregarded the plants and animal species that would dissapear without the critical sand dune habitat. I thought that what my intelligent friend said was so true and smart. His words will stick with me forever when my tunnel vision tries to come into view again.

You can make up your own mind on the issue and read the full NY times article HERE.


  1. Interesting information Mel! I agree that tunnel vision can be negative, it can be easy to forget to look at the whole ecosystem. I personally think the most important reason to have less wildfire suppression is to reduce the number of huge, devastating fires, by letting many smaller wilderness fires burn so that the fire potential is not allowed to build up over time. This is another good article:

    1. Thanks for the great article and intelligent reply Isaac. I agree but one of the scientists in this article is calling for 20 acres to burn and like I said climate change and how fast fire spreads is a problem with such a large patch. The other scientists in the paper is agreeing that we should lessen fire suppression as you said but he wants to burn far too much...

    2. Isaac I found this article on the news this morning noting the damage controlled fires can do when they quickly become out of control. These farmers in Clinton, bc learned the hard way and lost their livestock and livelihoods.

    3. Thanks for posting this article and your original post very informative and made me feel we need to fight the fires it does less harm to them then allowing them to burn as you showed with those poor rescued animals. we can't change everything to help populate just one species like the black-backed woodpecker while allowing all the others to suffer...


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