The Importance of Fire in Community Maintenance

Fire is an extremely important part of forest and grassland ecosystems. It aids in the recycling of nutrients back to the soil, especially those that are bound up in the dead bodies of smaller plants and leaves at ground level. Roots and most animals are unharmed in ground fires where the underbrush is burned away. These types of fires are nature's "lawnmowers" and are responsible for the "parkland" appearance of much of the deciduous forest when European settlers first arrived in North America. Ground fires also "level the playing field" for all plant species preventing any one species from overtaking an area. Ground fires burned most of the grassland and forest landscape every few years across North America. This helped to maintain the maximum species diversity of the mixed deciduous forest/grassland ecosystem. Deer and many herbivores rely on the meadows for their food. Most deciduous forest communities were intermixed with meadows due to frequent ground fires, often called forest-savannas. Since European intrusion, fire suppression has resulted in the thickening the foliage on the forest/grassland floor. This lowers the available nutrients to the remaining plants and reduces species diversity on the ground. Ground fires "level the playing field" and allow many species to grow in the new open space available afterwards. When a major fire does eventually occur (and it will), it will become a crown fire that completely incinerates the tree tops and kills both animals and plants. Ground fires generally do not initiate ecological succession while crown fires do.

A prescribed burn in progress.
By Ingrid Barrentine (United States Army) [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

The Yellowstone National Park fires, 1988.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A crown fire during the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires near the lodge at Old Faithful.

By Mongo - See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A ground fire in the Richland Creek Wilderness, Arkansas
By skuensting