Fire, Ecology and Nature Photographers

Unbridled wildfire scares us. It makes bold video for the evening news and is an easy topic for reporters to use to drum up audience interest. We are fascinated by big fires even while they feel threatening.

Yet, fire is and always has been an important part of the natural landscape. Smokey the Bear was developed by the U.S. Forest Service to keep trees in good shape for harvesting by lumber companies. That campaign had little to do with the realities of nature and fire. While rampant fire in the wrong places can be dangerous and a bad thing, no fire in places that have always had fires can also be bad. Forests in those areas get filled with flammable brush and dead wood that burns all too easily, creating fires that are worse than they would naturally be, fires that destroy and consume forests that are normally adapted to fire. A small fire cleaning out the understory of a forest has little effect on tall pines, for example, in western ponderosa pine forests or southern long-leaf pine/wiregrass ecosystems. A big fire kills them.

It is difficult and dangerous to photograph actual fires, though some people do. It is easy to photograph after the fire, starting with the charred landscape, continuing through the re-sprouting of the forest, finding the flowers that always come up after a fire, and showing the regeneration of the area over time. I believe these are important parts of our natural landscapes, yet photographers rarely photograph them.

Perhaps one reason is because such settings sometimes seem more like war zones than what we normally see as nature. Yet, as I often say, we nature photographers are the eyes of the public. People often “know” what they see, and most people do not see the things we see as nature photographers. The public is interested in fires, but if they are not seeing what happens after the fire, then we have failed in giving them a good picture of our natural world. In addition, many natural areas from national parks to properties of the Nature Conservancy use prescribed burns to create more natural landscapes and keep fires from being problems later. The first photo is from a prescribed burn in northern Florida.

In my part of the world, Southern California, fires are definitely part of the landscape. We have a very special ecosystem here called chaparral, an ecosystem that only exists in a few places in the world. This ecosystem is adapted to conditions of rain in the winter and no rain the rest of the year. The shrub-based ecosystem (there are few large trees) has plants adapted to availability of water which includes leaves with waxy coatings and oil-like protection from drying out. Those waxes and oils burn, especially later in the dry part of the year. Chaparral is adapted to recover from fire, but not when fires occur to frequently, which they often do because of man’s activities.

Still chaparral recovery can be spectacular — flowers everywhere the spring after the fire. Plants resprouting green from below blackened stems. These make for great photo opportunities. These make for photos that you just can’t get anywhere else, and those photos show off and share an amazing world.

So if you hear about a fire in natural areas near you, consider that there may be some great photos there waiting for you and your camera.