Research Suggests Frequent Fires Could Help Forest Ecosystems

forest fire oregon cascade range photo
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Forest recovering after the B&B; Complex fire in 2003 in the central Oregon Cascade Range. Photo by Garrett Meigs, Oregon State University via Flickr.

Guest blogger Cara Smusiak is a journalist and regular contributor to's Naturally Green section.

About half of the overstory trees were killed in the B&B; Complex fire in 2003 near Canyon Creek in the central Oregon Cascade Range, yet a high level of tree survival and vegetation rapidly recovered, as can be seen in this photo taken in 2007. This type of burning and re-growth is typical of fires in the Pacific Northwest.

Research has suggested that global warming will change wildfire patterns and cause a leap in the number of forest fires in the Pacific Northwest (though that's hotly debated). But there might just be a silver lining in those billowing clouds of smoke.In an interview with, John Bailey, an associate professor in the Department of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management at Oregon State University, discussed the beneficial role that fire plays in managing and enriching forest ecosystems.

Forest Fires Key for Management

Forest fires are key to long-term forest management, Bailey told Science Daily:

Forests historically had more fire across much of Oregon, and they would love to have more today. Burning is a natural ecosystem process and generally helps restore forest ecosystems. It's ironic that we spend so much money to stop fire, because we should learn to see fire as more of a partner and not always an enemy.

Forest fires are an efficient, natural way for a forest to rid itself of dead or dying plant matter. And the decomposed organic matter enriches the soil with minerals that help new plants sprout up quickly.

Bailey States Prevention is Unnecessary

Bailey told Science Daily that even the worst case scenario of climate change-related fires may not be as bad for forests as one might assume, since forests have historically seen more fires than they experience today. And the huge cost of trying to prevent fires is unnecessary in many cases, Bailey added:

Right now we're spending billions of dollars to prevent something that is going to happen sooner or later, whether we try to stop it or not, and something that can assist us in sound land management. It may always make sense to put out some fires when they threaten communities, or in other select circumstances. But periodic fire has always been a part of our forests, and we need to accept it as such, sort of like how we plan for and accept a very wet winter that comes along now and then.

Bailey will speak at an upcoming conference at Oregon State University titled, "Forest Health in Oregon: State of the State."