I woke up the other morning to the smell of smoke, an unfortunate sign of fall here in San Diego. Luckily, it was a small brush fire and contained before the dry, Santa Ana winds really picked up. It was a sober reminder that we live in a part of the world that has fires. Our fire season is a natural cycle and has been going on for millennia. We are not the only part of the world where fire is part of the ecosystem. Fires can occur all over the world, but in South Africa, Australia, and California, it is a routine. So perfectly, like most things in nature, native plants in these areas have developed ways to grow and even use fire to their advantage.
Fire is destructive, yet it does serve a purpose. It clears vegetation, produces nutrients, and opens up light to the forest floor. Many plant seeds in wildfire country, like conifers and proteas, are enclosed in a fire-proof, protected cone. These cones are designed for fire. A more specific example of this is the beautiful banksia of Southwest Australia. The seed-laden cones on banksias can survive the flames of a rushing wildfire and use them advantageously. The intense heat causes the valved capsules, which contain the seeds, to open up. When the fire passes and the cones cool off, the seeds fall to the ground, ready to become new plants. Because the fire has burned vegetation and let in sunlight, the altered forest floor is now the ideal place for the seeds to successfully germinate; a perfect and well-tested system in this seemingly harsh environment.
So what can we take away from this? How can we use nature here as our teacher? Well, we already have at least one example of using fire to our advantage, and ironically, it protects us from fire. Sprinkler systems in buildings activate by burning a release mechanism. Once engaged, the water will put out the flames. But we should look beyond this.
There are two options for the millions of people who live in fire-prone areas: either move away or learn ways to deal with this natural occurrence. Since most of us are going to stay, perhaps we can look into paints that change their chemical structures when intense heat is applied and, in turn, form a fire-resistance barrier. This would be a savior for houses and structures. Even reforestation projects could be preemptively done, where native seeds could be set out ahead of time, in nonnative stands of plants, waiting for the inevitable wildfire.
Many good ideas could, once again, come to us by looking at how nature tackles adversity. Our mindset could change so that instead of waking up to the smell of smoke and being in fear, we could be inspired.
Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Biomimicry: Hope for the Future.