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Despite devastation from forest fires, ecosystems rise from the ashes

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Lindsey Hadlock

The California wildfires have left a trail of devastation in their wake, killing dozens of people and burning hundreds of acres across the state.


Amanda Rodewald

Amanda Rodewald

Professor; Director of Conservation Science, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Amanda Rodewald, an expert in wildlife ecology and conservation biology at Cornell University, says that ­­– as efforts continue to extinguish new fires and clean-up the environment – we must remember that fire also is a natural process and essential to maintaining fire-dependent ecosystems. Unfortunately, human activities have changed the role that fire plays in many regions.

Rodewald says: 

“Fires are part of the natural disturbance regime of many ecosystems. Some species actually depend upon fire, such as certain trees with seeds that only mature and release when triggered by fire – an adaptation known as serotiny.

“The black-backed woodpecker is an example of a post-fire specialist that feeds on bark and wood-boring beetles in decaying and dead trees. Kirtland’s warbler nests only within the fire-dependent jack pine ecosystem of the Great Lakes.

“Unfortunately, human activities have altered ecosystems in ways that profoundly change the frequency, intensity, or extent of fire and that can sometimes lead to catastrophic outcomes.”

Todd Bittner

Todd Bittner

Director of Natural Areas

Todd Bittner, director of natural areas for Cornell Botanic Gardens and expert in restoration ecology, says in order to avoid negative effects on native ecosystems extensive changes must be made to development, conservation and habitat restoration.

Bittner says: 

“Historically, regularly recurring, lower intensity wildfires were part of the natural processes for most of the landscapes across the continental United States. Today, the interaction of fire suppression, matched with the spread of flammable invasive species, and extremes in climate exacerbated from global climate change are resulting in catastrophic wildfires at increasing frequency and intensity.

“Increasingly, the plant and animal species that reoccupy these nearly sterilized landscapes are novel combinations, with an overall negative impact on native biodiversity.

“To change the paradigm and support a resilient natural system, wholesale changes to land and water use, development, conservation, fire management and habitat restoration will be necessary.”


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