Book Review of Nature’s Phoenix

The Ecological Importance of Mixed Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix Edited by Dominick DellaSala and Chad Hanson.

340 pages $89.95

This important new collection of essays in The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires presents some of the latest research and thinking about wildfires by some of the most respected fire ecologists and other thinkers in the field.  As the sub-title suggests, wildfire is one of the major ecological processes that rejuvenate plant communities in many parts of the world.

The book makes the case that mixed-severity fires are a dominant feature of most forest communities in western ecosystems. Fire severity relates to the degree of fire effect upon the vegetation.  A low severity blaze seldom kills much of the over-story vegetation while a high severity fire kills more than 75% of the vegetation. Mixed severity means some parts of a fire perimeter burns at low severity and other parts will be high severity.

The collection of essays  emphasize some common themes. First,  weather/climate drive large fires, not fuels. Large fires are essential for healthy forest ecosystems and are a major a source of biodiversity.  The large fires create the snag forests that are critical components of the forest that many plants and animals depend upon for home, food, and habitat. Post fire logging, by removing these valuable forest components is extremely harmful to forest ecosystems.

The book is divided into 3 major sections. Section one deals with the ecological benefits of large fires.

Among the topics covered in the book are biodiversity of mixed and high severity fires; Ecological benefits of mega fires; Birds and mega fires; mammals and mixed/high severity fires; Mixed and high severity fires influence on riparian ecosystems; Bark beetles and high severity fires in the Rockies;

The second section is a global tour of fire dependent ecosystems. It features  essays on chaparral; a regional review of fire in Australian, sub Saharan Africa, Central Europe and Canada, along with a chapter on climate change and its influence on fire management;  and carbon dynamics in large fires.

The third section of the book focuses on management.  The first essay explains why post fire logging degrades forests; another essay deals with the rising cost of fire management and argues for ecological use of fire; and a final chapter explains how we can co-exist and live with these large fires.

This book presents a new paradigm in our approach to wildfire and how we think about these natural processes.  Despite the rhetoric we often hear about how large fires are “destroying” our forests, the reality presented by the authors of this volume is that large mixed to high severity fires are the critical ecological force that keeps forest and other ecosystems healthy.

As the authors make abundantly clear, we cannot afford to continue trying to suppress every fire. It is detrimental to the ecosystem, and ineffective as well.  Nature’s Phoenix should be mandatory reading for all conservation groups as well as agency people who are dealing with fire. It will, I guarantee, change your perspective on wildlife and how we can best learn to live with fire, as opposed to trying to control it.






  1. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Thanks for the excellent review of a book that, hopefully, will be used for studying this topic in greater depth by members of the agencies involved with wildfires.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner