These days wildfire flames consume many of the earth’s forests more frequently than ever before. Now, a study from Princeton University suggests that trees in traditionally fire-prone areas have a competitive edge for survival: thicker bark, which helps shield their stems from growing conflagrations.  Scientists combined data to compare 572 species of trees: where they live, their bark thickness, and how often fires occur in their area. Researchers found that bark is, on average, three times thicker in savannas where fires are a natural part of the ecosystem than in forests. In other words, savanna trees have adapted to cope with their surroundings.  “It’s a big step forward in our understanding of the biogeography of fire and plant species,” says a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Identifying fire-resistant traits in trees is key to predicting whether a species will withstand any climate change or other man-made destruction. Increasingly hot, dry weather makes some regions more flammable, while deforestation and land development regularly expose forests to fire. The frequency of wildfires in the American West between 1970 and 1986, for example, nearly quadrupled over the following 16 years, per published studies. Many regions are expected to get worse.

The study is saying, ‘OK, where are we going to have more fires, and which trees are prepared for dealing with those fires?’  But a tree’s thick bark is kind of like an oven mitt, it only protects up to a point. Even thick-bark trees could die if their forests are set ablaze more often than they can handle.  “The caveat is, let’s say you take a particular species and you start to expose it to more frequent fires. It won’t necessarily change its investment in bark over a few decades, according the study by scientists with NOAA working on climate and global change.

In rain forests, tree species could be especially vulnerable. Their trees typically have thin bark, since fire-resistant traits weren’t traditionally needed. These climate scientists conclude that when you start to burn an area where the species don’t contain adaptations to tolerate fire, you’re going to see a large amount of tree death. The study concludes that this is not just a bark thickness story, but it’s a story about how we’re seeing huge changes in fire now. and that it’s certain that large-scale tree loss would threaten entire ecosystems. But for now, scientists are at least one step closer to predicting how the earth will fare under growing pressures.  This study is just one more reason to encourage more prescribed burning in our forests.

Prescribed burning is the best and most efficient tool that foresters and fire professionals can use to reduce the risks of destructive wildfires, improve wildlife habitat, improve water quality, enhance forest growth, and create healthier forests for all to enjoy. Prescribed burning is a process where fire is intentionally set in a forest (by professionals) under controlled conditions and at a time when weather conditions are optimum for smoke dispersal, proper fire spread, and safety for fire crews and surrounding Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas. Prescribed fire is proven to reduce the risk of destructive wildfires, because this fire reduces fuel that a Wildfire needs to grow, spread, and destroy everything in its path.

Most of us would much rather watch fire professionals managing a controlled fire around in the forest with the smoke going up and away than having to flee in panic ahead of an advancing wildfire front heading toward our house with nothing anybody can do to stop it! When you see smoke from a controlled burn in our surrounding forests, don’t be annoyed about the brief smoke from the fire, but be glad that all the benefits from this controlled burn will much outweigh the consequences of an out of control wildfire running roughshod through the forests destroying trees, wildlife, streams, and buildings, and anything in its path. Native Americans and our settler ancestors would burn the forests frequently for all the benefits mentioned above.

Smokey Bear said fire was bad many years ago, and we believed him so it put the skids on fires that kept our forests healthy and now our forests have built up fuel just waiting to host the next big ONE that is coming our way one day. It’s not IF but WHEN one will strike!  Take heed from the Gatlinburg, Rough Ridge, and Rock Ridge, fires, to name a few, that we experienced last fall, It Can Happen Here! That was our wake-up call, listen to it!

For more information on fire in our forests and prevention measures, contact Frank Riley, Executive Director, Chestatee-Chattahoochee RC&D council at