How forest fires play an essential role in natural life cycles of plants, wildlife

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

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Wildfires have a reputation as deadly, destructive forces of nature, so it may come as a surprise that they can benefit the environment and some lifeforms.

The natural process of fire is as essential to many of the world’s ecosystems as sunlight or precipitation, particularly for forests and grasslands, according to Dr. Donald Hagan, assistant professor and forest ecologist at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina.

“When fire is eliminated, plant and animal species [can] suffer, and their populations often decline,” Hagan said. “In the absence of fire, forests become much denser, and fuels like leaves, branches and dead trees accumulate.”

Wildfire - Pixabay image

The accumulation of such fuel heightens the risk of catastrophic wildfires, especially during drought conditions, Hagan added.

How forest fires benefit plants, trees

Forest fires rejuvenate the soil and eliminate invasive species, which promote healthier and stronger plant species, according to Steve Green, an adjunct professor for the Tarrant County College Fire Service Training Center in Texas.

Many plants have adapted to the occurrence of fires. Such adaptations include thick bark, belowground buds or cones that only open when heated, according to Hagan.

“Other species will not flower unless burned,” he said. These species are referred to as “fire adapted” or “fire dependent.”

These species benefit from fires, and some are unable to survive or reproduce without it, according to Hagan.

The reproductive strategies of many plant species that grow in the states surrounding the Great Lakes have adapted in response to fires over thousands of years, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Examples include jack pine and black spruce trees, which have cones that open in a fire’s extreme temperatures, thus releasing seeds.

Infographic - How plants and trees adapt to forest fires

Fire is more likely to kill or damage species that haven’t developed these types of adaptations, said Hagan, but in places where fire is common, fire-adapted species are typically dominant.

“If there is an invasive species – [for instance], in Texas, it’s cedar – those are more readily consumed by fire,” Green said.

“That makes way for the native species, such as grasslands, to flourish again; we saw a lot of this [following] the 2011-12 fire season,” Green added.

Fire also rids forests of diseases and insects that kill trees, thus keeping forests healthy, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).

How forest fires benefit wildlife

Wildfires can also positively impact animal population and habitats.

“Many animal species benefit from the sunny, open environments created by fire, as these types of sites provide excellent habitat for feeding and nesting,” Hagan said.

As fire clears the forest floor of heavy brush, the herbs, grasses and regenerated shrubs that are able to grow can provide sources of food and shelter for many wildlife species, according Cal Fire.

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The removal of thick shrubs also increases the water supply, which means there are fewer plants absorbing the water; therefore, there is more water available for other types of plants and animals.

Benefits of prescribed fires

Prescribed fires are one of the most cost-effective tools that land managers have for reducing wildfire risk, while restoring and maintaining healthy ecosystems, Hagan said.

“A primary goal of prescribed fire is to reduce hazardous fuel accumulations, and this is especially important in the wildland urban interface, where people are living in close proximity to wildfire-prone natural areas,” Hagan said.

The assumption is that because these areas will likely burn regardless, prescribed fires will help lower the future risk of uncontrolled wildfires.

Although prescribed fires are particularly common in the Southeast, they’re conducted throughout the U.S., Hagan said.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were nearly 6.5 million acres of prescribed fires on state and federal lands nationwide in 2017.

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