Forest fires and their effects on the environment

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Forest fires and their effects on the environment
Forest fires normally need human intervention to extinguish them. (Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

A forest fire can occur for several reasons. Spontaneous fires occur when temperatures reach critical levels. Controlled fires are started by forest management authorities, as part of their environmental maintenance strategies. Forest fires are also started by careless or uncaring people with matches and cigarettes. Their effects are usually significant, as forest fires spread rapidly, creating considerable changes to the environment.

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Forest fires destroy both plant and animal life. The undergrowth often contains large amounts of dry, easily combustible material such as dead leaves, dried grasses and woody twigs. However, it also contains insects, worms, rodents, young plants and saplings. When a tree burns, all the living things that dwell on it or happen to be in the vicinity are at risk, including birds and their eggs or hatchlings, squirrels, caterpillars and butterflies and parasite plants.


Because of the resilience of Mother Nature, forest fires are not all doom and gloom. There are some positive outcomes too, according to The Natural History Museum. The heat of a fire can cause cones high up in trees to break open and spill their seeds. Some seedlings already on the floor of the forest will have been unable to grow much because of the lack of light. With a newly opened forest ceiling, they can fulfil their growth potential.


Smoke and ash from forest fires can travel miles, spreading windborne debris over a large area. There are several possible risks to human health, including reduced visibility and respiratory problems. Fine ash landing on the surface of leaves can inhibit a plant’s capacity to receive light, carry out photosynthesis and grow and develop normally. Wood ash landing on soil will tend to cause it to become more acidic. This will be detrimental to plants that prefer alkaline soil.

Other effects

Some research suggests forest fires may have an impact on global warming, according to J. S. Levine, T. Bobbe, N. Ray, A. Singh and R. G. Witt. Additionally, forest fires often leave behind unsightly charred debris which takes a long time to rot away. Further, the re-colonisation of the area by plants and animals is likely to be a slow process which may need to be managed carefully.

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