How Does a Forest Fire Benefit Living Things?

By: Laurie L. Dove

After the Forest Fire: Benefits to Plants

Despite the damage that can occur to property and people, good things can come out of forest fires, too.

Forest fires are a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Even healthy forests contain dead trees and decaying plant matter; when a fire turns them to ashes, nutrients return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation.


And, when fire rages through dry underbrush, it clears thick growth so sunlight can reach the forest floor and encourage the growth of native species. Fire frees these plants from the competition delivered by invasive weeds and eliminates diseases or droves of insects that may have been causing damage to old growth. Wildflowers begin to bloom abundantly.

Most young, healthy trees are resilient enough to survive a forest fire and will soon have a growth spurt, thanks to flames that thin light-banning canopies above [source: National Geographic]. And scientists report young-growth forests recovering from fire are home to more diverse species, in both plants and animals [source: Krock]. This is because the remnants of burned trees offer attractive habitats to birds and small mammals, and nutrients from burned vegetation continue to leach into the soil to fuel the birth of new plants [source: Pacific Biodiversity Institute].

At Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida, an experiment that lasted nearly four decades provided telling results. The 23-acre (9.3-hectare) swath of land was not allowed to burn during that time. Plant diversity fell by 90 percent and one species of bird, red-cockaded woodpeckers, disappeared entirely [source: Eilperin]. In order to thrive, this ecosystem, like many others, needed fire.

Controlled forest fires can be financially beneficial, too. Prescribed burns are less expensive than mechanical thinning -- the logging of small-diameter trees to reduce tree density and underbrush -- which costs around $28 an acre [source: Eilperin].