Living in a Fire Adapted Environment

A view from the Two Bulls Fire in Bend, Oregon 2014.
Every tick is a fire scar, telling our fire history.

The only constant is change.

This saying attributed to Heraclitus resonates strongly with those of us who spend time in forests. You have to look closely for the clues: stumps or lack thereof, holes and mounds, scars, downed logs, clues that tell the story of an ever-changing landscape.

Our landscape has been molded by disturbances big and small, of time frames lasting between a second and thousands of years. From a single tree falling over, creating a space and light for new trees to grow, to the Colorado river carving out the Grand Canyon over millennia, disturbances are constantly changing our landscape. Fire has been arguably the most influential source of change over the last 3000-5000 years. Frequent lightning strikes and historic human use of fire as a management tool have resulted in some species adapting to not only surviving fire, but needing it to propagate and thrive. Regular fire favored certain grasses and shrubs that benefited certain wildlife.

In the last couple hundred years or so, humans have come in and removed what was a regular part of the ecology of our landscape. And by removing fire, we have altered the disturbance regime, creating heavy fuel loads in some places, increased tree density in others, different species composition in still others. Many of our fire adapted ecosystems are struggling now with increased competition, reduced biodiversity, increased insect and disease loads. At the same time we have increasing numbers of people living in proximity to the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) or actually in the forests. Whether you realize it or not, you are probably living in a fire-adapted ecosystem.  So letting it all burn is not an option either. So what can we do?

What does this mean for you as a steward or manager of woodlands in a fire adapted ecosystem?

1.     Safety first. If you live on your property make sure you are minimizing your risk of fire. Create and manage defensible space around your home; make sure you have an emergency plan and an emergency kit, as well as an evacuation plan.

2.     Learn about the fire history and ecology of where you live. Are there any species that need fire to reproduce or survive? What has happened in the absence of fire?

3.     Be the change you want to see in the world. If your forest used to experience regular fire, what can you do to re-create that disturbance? In some areas prescribed burning is feasible, in others the risk is too high. Alternative management tools such as mowing, thinning, pruning, and planting might better suit your property.

4.     Help others see the beauty and benefit of fire. Just like harvesting trees for timber, the public perception of land after a fire can be very negative. It doesn’t take long, however, for wildflowers, forbs, and wildlife to return and even benefit from a land that experienced wildfire. Likewise, prescribed burning can be a very effective tool at restoring ecosystem health and preventing devastating wildfire, but has negative perceptions, due mainly to the smoke it produces. As forest stewards, it is our duty to help our family, friends, and neighbors understand the role fire plays in our environment.


There are many tremendous resources to help you learn about protecting yourself from fire, and to help you live safely in a fire-prone environment:

1.     FireWise. Helping communities become resilient and safe, created by the National Forest Protection Association (NFPA).

2.     Fire Adapted Communities. Created by the Fire Adapted Communities Coalition, a group of partners committed to helping people and communities in the wildland urban interface adapt to living with wildfire and reduce their risk for damage, without compromising firefighter or civilian safety.

3.     Fire In-Depth. In-depth information from the National Park Service on Fire Ecology, culture, and more:

4.     Always check your local Extension offices for educational programs around land management and fire. For example, in Oregon we have been offering a program called Citizen Fire Academy (CFA) to engage landowners and the public to better manage their own properties, and to help others. You can learn more about our capacity building efforts here:

If you have questions about the Oregon CFA program, please feel free to drop me a line.

Nicole Strong, Oregon State University Extension Service