Fire Ecology

Lightening bolts in a dark night sky

Fire ecology is the study of how fire interacts with living things and their environment. Since the last climatic change, lightning-caused fires have been burning through ponderosa pine stands throughout the southwestern United States. Seldom did a decade pass without the influence of fire across the landscape.

Ignition of these fires is from lightning. Thunderstorms fill the southwestern skies in the late summer of each year. Thousands of strikes may occur during a day of intense storms. Whether or not lightning starts a fire is dependent on a variety of factors.

Rejuvenation of the forest occurs following these fires. Insects move into burned trees providing food for many birds. Woodpeckers create cavities as they excavate in search of ants and beetles. These cavities later become homes for other birds and animals. When this same tree falls to the ground it becomes a home for small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Rodents aerate the soil, spread seeds and spores, helping to plant the next forest. Many species of pine trees have cones that open only as a result of fire. Some plants resist being killed by fires by producing new growth (shoots) from underground organs and roots. Ponderosa pine forests are adapted to fire. They have thick bark that acts as insulation to protect itself from fire.

Essential forest processes are maintained through fire. Decomposition and recycling of organic matter is slow in dry climates such as the Southwest. Nutrients are tied up in wood and plant materials until released by the chemical reactions created by fire.

Treescape of a forest that has been thinned