The fact that man has used fire almost throughout his entire existence is not a myth. Since ancient times, fire has helped man to clear land for construction, to hunt or to solve disputes with neighbors. And in those days it also provoked fires, because there was no way to control the flames. But the times of primitive people are long gone, and modern technology allows us to do without open flames altogether in our daily lives.
Many traditions of using fire, especially in rural areas, are still alive. And these traditions are shrouded in myths. The reasons why people, for example, set fire to the grass, are often rooted in the fact that “we always did it this way”, “we saw that our parents and grandparents did it this way”. When there is no clear answer, actions begin to be explained with fragmentary knowledge, assumptions, and subjective reasons. This is how myths are born.
Myths are often fueled by media reports, replacing cause-and-effect connections with spatial and temporal ones. For example, the phrase “Hot and dry weather came on, and forest fires started” involuntarily makes the reader think that the fires started because of the heat, although the weather conditions only contributed to the development of a small fire into a big disaster. The delayed effect of some fires, when, for example, burning grass on a drained peat bog in spring leads to a large peat fire in autumn, does not allow us to build a direct link between cause and effect, although in fact the peat fire was active and growing all summer, but was not noticed until the smoke reached populated areas.
We have collected the most common myths about grass, forest, and peat fires and have given explanations for each of them.
Myth 1: Grass burning warms the soil and enriches it with ash, making new grass grow faster and better in the burned areas
The effect of faster grass growth after grass burns is usually a seeming one: the dry grass just hides the young green shoots, while the green grass is clearly visible in the blackened burned areas. The soil from a runaway grass fire warms only slightly, but it kills the buds and grass seeds on or near the surface, beneficial microorganisms, and small animals. Soil fertilization by ash also does not occur: without fire the mineral nutrients contained in ash would get into the soil when dry grass decomposes (and in summer, in heat, it decomposes very quickly). And after the fire, the resulting ash does not penetrate into the soil, but remains on the surface, and the first heavy rain washes it into streams and rivers, where it is useless.
Myth 2: If you burn grass in the spring, it will kill all the ticks, vipers, and other dangerous animals and pests, and the beneficial animals and birds will have time to run away and fly away
Mites and vipers probably won’t escape. But burned bird nests with traces of eggs are very often found at fires. Burning dry grass leads to destruction of clutches and nesting places of such birds as Mallards, Teals, Siskins, Weasels, Snipes, Reed and Common buntings, Field, Wood and Crested Larks, Meadow Pipits. Animals, reptiles, and amphibians may die and suffer in the fire. Newborn hares, hedgehogs and hedgehogs, toads, and frogs will not survive. A strong grass fire kills almost all animals living in dry grass or on the soil surface, many insects, their larvae, and pupae. In addition, earthworms and other animals that destroy various pests and participate in the process of soil formation are killed.
Myths 3 and 4: Dry reeds (“reeds” as they are commonly called) should be burned so that something new and more useful can grow in their place. Reeds need to be burned so that cows don’t get lost in them
In most cases, it is the reeds that grow again after burning them, because their deep rhizomes allow them to survive the fire and vegetatively reproduce. Reed fires are short-lived, uncontrollable, and directly dependent on the wind. Burning reeds can easily kill all grazing livestock as well.
Myth 5: It is necessary to burn reeds in order to catch spawning fish with nets when the water rises in the spring floods
Yes, it is really more convenient to catch fish in this case. So grass burning is a direct benefit for poachers. During spawning, the fish use the grass as a base to anchor their eggs, and where there is no grass and reeds, there will be no successful spawning. And ash in the water can even kill the eggs, or even the fish.
Myth 6: Annual grass burning is a prevention of larger fires
In some cases and under certain strict conditions, this may be true. Strictly controlled, well-prepared and organized burning can help avoid bigger problems by creating a lane around a community or next to a road, for example, that is free of combustible materials and can help stop fires later. In real life, few people can do it right. And the deleterious effects on the scorched area from a controlled fall are not much different from an uncontrolled one. An alternative to fire methods for protecting a community can be mowing or fencing. But it’s important to remember that in hurricane winds, even in stubble, fire can move very quickly. It’s much safer for everyone not to light the grass at all.
Myth 7: You can read in the scientific and popular science literature that steppes and prairies can only exist with regular burnings, which have replaced the trampling of areas by large ungulates
Such burnings can be “useful” (natural, contributing to the formation or maintenance of some plant communities, creating a mosaic and diversity of conditions on a large scale), only when they occur for natural reasons: from dry thunderstorms, volcanic eruptions or meteorite falls. The recurrence of such fires for different regions varies from tens to hundreds of years. This has nothing to do with annual burnings.
Myth 8: Grass burns because of drought, sun or wind
Grass burns because people set it on fire, and sun, wind, or warm, dry weather are factors in which a fire develops intensely. Grass will not burn in the rain. But in order for grass to catch fire from high temperature (without open flame or spark) it should be heated to at least 150-200°С. This temperature is never created simply from unfocused sunlight.
Myth 9: Peat is self-igniting and impossible to extinguish
Most peat fires start in the spring from burning grass on drained bogs. In summer and autumn the causes are fires lit on peat bogs and abandoned cigarette butts. Peat spontaneous ignitions never occur under natural conditions (even in very hot weather). The only reliably known cases of peat spontaneous combustion are when freshly extracted by a certain (milling) method is stored in large piles – caravans. And this happens only at a certain moisture content.
When compiling the textbooks, the information that in order to create conditions for self-heating, the peat must first be extracted and milled, and then stacked in caravans, which will be heated in the sun at a certain humidity, was not included in the books, and so a myth was born, as if peat in the natural environment can ignite itself. Human negligence is directly to blame for peat fires. But if a fire does start, it is important to know that burning peat can be extinguished if the extinguishing technology is followed.
Extinguishing a peat fire requires a large amount of water (one ton per square meter of burning peat) and careful mixing of the entire burning layer with it. If unexcavated areas are left under a layer of water or soil, such a fire soon resumes. If there are no such areas, the fire will be extinguished.
Myth 10: Peat can burn at great depths, e.g. 8-10 meters
There are a huge number of legends about how in 2010 or 1972 heavy equipment, people, trains and settlements fell dozens of meters into the burning peat. In reality, the peat rarely burns deeper than a meter or a half (at this level the groundwater starts). Deeper foci (up to 2-5 meters) are encountered when burning unexcavated caravans of peat or the embankments of narrow-gauge railroads made of peat.
Myth 11: Come a hot summer, huge wildfires will break out
Any large fires develop from small fires. During the spring, more than 80% of wildfires start from grass fires. The most destructive top fires start with lower fires (easier to extinguish). Huge bushfires are the consequence of not being able to put out the fire in time when the situation could have been handled.
Myth 12: If aviation arrives at the fire, it means that the problem can definitely be solved
There is a persistent myth that it is impossible to extinguish a natural fire, especially a forest fire, without the involvement of aviation. Very often in news reports you can see an airplane breaking through columns of smoke to the center, making a turn and emptying water tanks. Shrouded in clouds, it leaves for refueling. The plot is certainly impressive, but no more than that. Practice shows that extinguishing from the ground is much more effective: aviation cannot compete with ground units in either cost or performance.
Aviation is most often called upon to extinguish severe wildfires as support for ground crews in areas where their work is difficult due to terrain features or other reasons. In order to stop the flames, it is necessary to drop water (or a chemical) directly on the edge or right in front of it. In order to dump accurately, the aircraft must travel at a low altitude, but this is not possible in a severe fire because of smoke and turbulence caused by hot, rising air currents. As a result, water is discharged at a high altitude, dispersed by the wind, and some of it evaporates before it reaches the burning surface. The small amount of water that reaches the target is not always enough to extinguish.
Aircraft support is required when it is necessary to slow the fire’s progress. Aircraft can “attack” a runway still unaffected by the fire by dropping water or special reagents on it. Eventually, when the fire reaches the wetted area, it will slow down, buying time for ground crews.
Myth 13: All wildfires are caused by illegal logging
There is a strong belief that most fires are started to conceal illegal logging or to designate unplanned sanitary clearcuts on the ground after a fire. It is certainly possible, although in reality there have not been many such cases officially recorded (at least few where arsonists have been caught in the act). Partly the popularity of this point of view is great because such stories and versions are eagerly picked up by the media. But statistics show that human carelessness in handling fires, such as failure to burn logging residues, is more often the cause of fires. Every year, twice as much forest is killed in fires as from all legal and illegal logging.