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The Two Faces of Fire

Lightning-ignited fires on Catalina Island in the summer of 2006 created compelling images of nature at work. As the fire roared over the hillsides leaving swaths of charred earth in its wake, it's hard to imagine this as a good fire. But fire in wildlands can be both, a good and bad thing.

Many ecosystems evolved in the presence of regular fires and actually depend on them to maintain their diversity, a natural way to keep things balanced. Others seem to tolerate fire and recover well from these occasional events, like the 1988 fires in Yellowstone National Park. In other areas, where fires have been suppressed for decades, they can burn catastrophically.

On the island, data taken over the past century indicates that lightning-ignited fires do occur and that the island's ecosystems respond well to them.  However, humans are an integral part of the equation and their needs, including protection from fires that may destroy property or lives, is a critical part of the equation.

So, what do we do about fires? In the natural wildlands, we monitor the response of plants and animals to the fires. We record which plants thrive, survive or die.  We monitor the usage of the burned and recovering areas by both native and non-native wildlife, and implement management actions, such as protection of specific plants or plant communities, from grazers and browsers.

In areas where humans live or work, we take a more protective approach. We build firebreaks that the flames can’t jump to keep the wild fire from destroying buildings and homes that humans occupy. We develop fire-wise strategies, managing fuels and installing fire response equipment.  We may even burn certain areas (in what is known as prescribed burns) to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.  All of these strategies are compiled into a Fire Management Plan.

The recent Catalina Island fires are teaching us a lot about the ways nature responds to natural fires.  They are also teaching us how to better respond to the threats fires pose to our human enterprise with minimal damage to both, humans and nature.

Learn more about the "Two Faces of Fire":

California Chaparral

Catalina Island Ecology