Forest fires can be normal and natural. Here's why:
They help “clean up” forests and keep them healthy.
But for years, many Americans looked upon forest fires as something bad—something that needed to be stamped out. So that’s what we tried to do.
That approach caused problems:
- Without any fires to clear things, tangles of brush and undergrowth built up in some of our forests.
- These became a natural “fuel.”
- So a spark from lightning or a tossed match in such a forest could quickly cause a huge and deadly fire.
Smokey Bear Photo: © USDA Forest Service
- Starting in the early 1970s, the National Park Service in the U.S. began letting many natural fires burn themselves out.
- But then, fires swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1988.
What happened to the Yellowstone animals?
Some animals died:
- Several hundred elk died and some black bears, deer, moose, and other animals did, too.
- But all sorts of birds, bears, coyotes, and others ate the remains of these animals.
- The numbers of some species (kinds) of animals shrank as a result of the fire.
Some animals survived just fine:
- Deer mice even multiplied. They foraged on seeds and insects that were everywhere.
- The numbers of birds that nest in old or mature lodgepole pines, which burned down, such as the Steller’s jays, fell.
- But fish got by remarkably well.
Several species of plants made out well:
- Aspen and fireweed, along with lodgepole pine, are called fire species.
- Their seeds and stems open and sprout thanks to fire.
But since then, more and more people have moved into the forests of the West:
- People are building homes deep in the wilderness.
- The trees and shrubs surrounding their homes are often very dry. (The West doesn’t get much rain in some years, and forest fires are a regular event here.)
- In these areas, firefighters are called in to fight forest fires.
- Sure, it may be better for the forest as a whole to let it burn—but people’s lives and homes are at stake. So there’s no doubt that the fire has to be fought.
- Still, these blazes can be so intense that nothing can stop them.
- People may fight the flames for days or even weeks. In many cases, only when cooler, wet weather arrives does the entire fire finally die out.
Forest fires, it seems, are a natural part of nature—for better and for worse!