How Forest Fires Work :
Fires, both man-made and natural, contribute to forest loss. Fire is the oldest method used to clear land for farming and other uses, and it is still widely used in many countries. This is a concern not only because of the added threat to biodiversity and other natural systems, but deforestation—especially caused by fire—is also a central emitter of carbon dioxide.
Wildfires are a natural occurrence and serve important ecosystem functions. Forest landscapes are dynamic and change in response to variations in climate and to disturbances from natural sources, such as fires caused by lightning strikes. Many tree species have evolved to take advantage of fire, and periodic burns can contribute to overall forest health. Fires typically move through burning lower branches and clearing dead wood from the forest floor which kick-starts regeneration by providing ideal growing conditions. It also improves floor habitat for many species that prefer relatively open spaces.
After a fire burns down a swath of woodland, a sequence of ecological responses, or succession, begins. Amid the charred forest remains a flourishing of pioneer species begins, usually quick-growing grasses and weeds, followed by a steady advance of slower-growing, taller species of plants. The first trees to emerge are often small pines, followed by larger pines and finally by hardwood species, including oak and hickory. The succession process begins quickly but can take decades or even hundreds of years to move from an early pioneer to a climax stage.
Historically, when fires from natural or other causes began, efforts were made to control them as quickly as possible. That has changed somewhat as more has been learned about the role of fire within forest ecosystems. Forests in which fires are regularly suppressed can burn much hotter and more dangerously when a fire finally does break out. With suppression, large amounts of underbrush accumulate on the forest floor, certain tree species cannot regenerate (oak and pine, for example, need fire to crack their seeds), and trees that do flourish become densely packed. Within this forest structure, the number of fires continues to increase, getting larger and gaining in intensity. This has become increasingly dangerous as urban and suburban areas encroach on forested spaces.
These realities have brought about a greater sense of the importance of understanding how forests should be managed to ensure health and sustainability. Current practices use a combination of containment measures in an attempt to balance the importance of periodic fires to ecosystem health and the danger of uncontrolled burns to human communities.
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