Archive for October, 2019

Wildfires as an ecosystem service (II)

October 1st, 2019 No comments

Our paper where we emphasized the role of wildfires in providing ecosystem services [1] had a good reception among those with experience in fire ecology; but it was a surprise for people that never worked on wildfires [2]. The main criticism we have received is that it is very obvious that wildfires can produce negative effects (killing plants and animals, increasing erosion and pollution, burning houses, etc.) and we did not emphasized this in the paper. Of course! Everybody knows it! We have never denied it! In fact, if fire didn’t not kill plants and animals, it would not be an evolutionary pressure! [3]

Rain is a natural process that provides a range of services to humans but certainly not all rainfall events (eg those generating floods) are beneficial to human societies. Biodiversity can also deliver a variety of services, even though there are species capable of harming humans. Likewise, the vast majority of life depends on sunlight, yet we can get sunburn and develop skin cancer after overexposure. In the same way, wildfires can offer a range of ecosystem services [1] but obviously not all fires, and not all fire regimes, provide services to humankind. For instance, if we build houses in a fire-prone (or flood-prone) area, then the inhabitants of those houses are likely to suffer negative impacts when a wildfire (or a major rainfall event) occurs. Similarly, when we substantially increase fuel loads and landscape homogeneity (eg due to a fire exclusion policy, or with a massive and poorly managed tree plantation), the impact of wildfires – especially under novel climatic conditions – can be catastrophic (eg the case of the 2017 fires in Portugal and Chile [4]).

In more general terms, negative impacts to humans often occur when we perturb the historical fire regime: that is, when one or some of the fire regime parameters (ie frequency, seasonality, spread pattern, or intensity) are altered [5]. This is because human societies have adapted to historical fire regimes, or have modulated the fire regime for their own benefit (cultural fire regimes); however, recent abrupt fire regime changes due to modern anthropogenic factors (eg mismanagement, global warming) lead to fire regimes that adversely impact biodiversity and the services they provide (for a few examples, see [5]). This is why we previously suggested that perturbations to the historical fire regime feed back to the functioning of the ecosystem and reduce these services in the same way that major anthropogenic changes in a rainfall regime reduce the services that precipitation provides to humans [1]. Thus, the idea that wildfires can provide ecosystem services stands firmly, even though there are currently some socially unsustainable fire regimes; these negative impacts are well-known by everybody, and widely spread by the media.


Ucrania natural heritage site (Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons).


[1] Pausas J.G. & Keeley J.E. 2019. Wildfires as an ecosystem service. Front. Ecol. & Environ. 17: 289-295. [doi | pdf | blog | brief for managers]  

[2] Pausas J.G. & Keeley J.E. 2019. Wildfires misunderstood. Front. Ecol. & Environ. 17: 431-431 [doi | pdf]

[3] He T., Lamont N.B., Pausas J.G. 2019. Fire as s key driver of Earth’s biodiversity. Biological Reviews [doi | pdf]  

[4] Chile 2017 fires: fire-prone forest plantations, | Incendios en Chile 2017,

[5] Keeley J.E. & Pausas J.G. 2019. Distinguishing disturbance from perturbations in fire-prone ecosystems. Int. J. Wildland Fire 28: 282-287. [doi | IJWF | pdf | blog | brief for managers]