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Blazing fires cause damage, repair ecosystems

Fire ecologist shares benefits, dangers of fires
Thursday, September 6, 2012

Much of the U.S. has been consumed by overwhelming heat and drought conditions this summer, which has increased the wildfire watch nationwide. Despite the recent rains, conditions are still right for wildfire. Sherry Leis, fire ecologist at Missouri State University and coordinator for the Great Plains Fire Science Exchange, noted that there are many causes of fire and benefits to them as well.

“In normal conditions, there is too much moisture in roadside grass for a cigarette to start a fire, but in these dry, hot times, cigarette butts tossed out of a car window can start fires,” said Leis. “Lightning can start a fire, especially if a thunderstorm doesn’t accompany it. In this longitude, a storm usually comes with the lightning. Wildfires are not just a western phenomenon, but the conditions have to be right, and they are right now.”

According to Leis, all that is required for a wildfire to ignite is a source of fuel, an ignition source and oxygen. This could include intentional burning that escapes, equipment fires, arson or a host of other sources. Fire ecologists use dead fuel moisture measurements to monitor fire potential. With the extremely dry conditions, 1,000 hour fuels (greater than three inches in diameter) were measuring around 6 percent moisture earlier this summer compared to an average of 25-40 percent at this time of year.

“It is important – not just in this exceptional year of drought – but even in normal years, that property owners be proactive in protecting their properties from fire. The firewise program has excellent recommendations to assist people in this process,” said Leis. “Eight firefighters have been killed on wildfires so far this year. If you can make their job easier, by reducing the risk around your own property, you, in essence, help your whole community.”

Although wildfires can be damaging to the landscape and ecosystems, prescribed fire is used to maintain the natural state of the land as well. And according to Leis, Missouri uses prescribed fire extensively through the support of public and nonprofit groups.

“Fire is a natural part of the landscape; we have come to understand its importance in reducing fuel loads to increase safety, as well as the ecological role for woodland and grassland communities,” said Leis. “At the time of pre-settlement, Missouri had a lot more prairie than it does today. We only have about 0.1 percent of our prairies left in Missouri right now. And prairies are maintained by fire. If they’re not burned on some interval, it will grow up in trees, making it much more difficult for grassland species to hang on.”

“Hot Topics – Expert Source” releases are a tool the office of university communications provides to assist media in locating a university source to comment on a particular subject or issue. The opinions expressed by the expert are those of a specific individual and are not necessarily representative of the views of the university.

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The College of Natural and Applied Sciences incorporates more than 20 undergraduate and 13 graduate programs along with one cooperative program offered through a partnership with Missouri S&T. The academic departments that make up the college include: biology; chemistry; computer science; engineering; geography, geology and planning; hospitality and restaurant administration; mathematics; and physics, astronomy and materials science. Students have the opportunity for intense hands-on research and internships through a number of outreach and research centers and work alongside faculty who are producing cutting-edge research in their fields.

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