As we all know, wildfires all around the world, especially out west have been burning uncontrollably. They are continuing to get larger and more unpredictable. But these fires are not only affecting humans and animals, rather they have narrowed down to affecting the tiniest of forest organisms—including bacteria and fungi– and researchers are now finding that some of the microbes are “thriving”.
A study last week reported that “that populations of several bacterial and fungal species increased after severe wildfires in the boreal forests of the Northwest Territories and Alberta in Canada.” Studies like these and others such as the effect of smoke on the distribution of microbes, “give researchers a clearer picture of how wildfires change microbial communities”, and can possibly help them predict how ecosystems will recover after blazing flames. “Microbes help to maintain ecosystem health by decomposing organic matter and readying nutrients for plants to absorb”. For example, because certain fungi and bacteria have specific relationships with plants, it makes it possible to predict which nutrients will be available in an area.
In order to test what they had predicted researchers collected samples from 62 sites about a year after 50 of them had been damaged by fire in 2014 in forests of two Canadian provinces. They found that certain bacteria in the Massilia and Arthrobacter genera were more present after than before the fires. This bacteria usually shows up in cucumber root and seed, and some researchers are predicting that there might be some growth of vegetation of that kind in the future when the forests begin to recover.
It is predicted that microbes “use fire to colonize new territory is by hitching a ride on small particles of ash or dust in plumes of smoke”. In a study published last November, Leda and her team conducted a study and found that “the microbes present in the smoke differed from those lingering in ambient air”. The microbes getting caught in the smoke she predicts can help plant growth in faraway regions.
There is a downside. It has been detected that some fungus, such as Phytophthora ramorum, cause sudden oak death. Another negative is the smoke that the firefighters, other ER personal, and people inhale after and during the fires could contain hazardous microbes. These can lead to lung problems and allergens.
Microbes are not often spoken about when wildfires sweep through, but they surprisingly have more impact than you may think. When entire ecosystems are reduced to ash, microbes determine the first step on the road to recovery.