Forest fires are a terrifying and awe-inspiring natural phenomenon. Every year, countless firefighters work to protect our homes and our lives from the damaging effects of forest fires. But while forest fires are scary, they are necessary for a healthy forest ecosystem. Even though they’re dangerous, forest fires do a lot of good for the forests they burn.
Forest fires remove dead trees
There are numerous lifeforms that feed on fallen trees and decaying plant matter, but if you’ve spent any time in a forest that hasn’t experienced a recent burn, you know that that plant matter can really pile up. Forest fires reduce much of these fallen trees to ash, which speeds up how quickly nutrients can return the soil. These nutrients are used by future trees to nourish themselves and grow.
Forest fires make way for new growth
In forests that have gone without fires for extended periods of time, dry undergrowth can choke out the growth of new trees. On a long enough timeline, this can cause serious harm to a forest. If older trees die and younger trees aren’t there to replace them, the balance of the forest is thrown off. Forest fires clear much of this dry underbrush, giving new trees and plants an opportunity to get the necessary sunlight and room to grow.
Forest fires increase biodiversity
Young-growth forests that experience routine fires have greater biodiversity than those which do not. This is because burned trees offer uniquely important habitats for birds and other small animals, and the nutrients that end up in the forest’s soil fuel the rapid growth of new plants. In one study, a 23-acre forest was not allowed to burn for 40 years and, in that time, the forest’s biodiversity decreased by 90%!
So what happens when the forest fire is over?
When a fire burns through a forest, the natural recovery effort begins immediately. While many animals are displaced by forests, the conditions for them to return are present almost immediately. Certain insects actually sense the heat of forest fires and travel from miles around to feast on the burned plant matter left behind. These insects serve as the first food for animals lower on the food chain, like birds and small mammals.
Animals are not the only creatures that get their start in the hours and days after a fire. Certain plants, like the Giant Sequoia, actually cannot grow unless exposed to fire. Without fire, sequoia seeds cannot germinate, and certain types of flowers are unable to bloom.
In the years following a fire, new plant growth begins in earnest and animals, like deer and other herbivores, begin to return. Following the herbivores come the carnivores, like coyotes, bobcats, wolves, bears, and mountain lions.
The immediate aftermath of a forest fire can be devastating to humans, but like us, nature sets to work rebuilding right away. If a forest near you has burned, it may not be back to its original beauty in your lifetime, but it will regenerate itself in time.