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Fire Ecology and What Happens After Forest Fires

by Meaghan Weeden May 21, 2024 3 min read

fire ecology after forest fires
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What Happens After Forest Fires?

Do you ever wonder what happens after forest fires? Fire ecology— or, study of "the origins of wildland fire and its relationship to the living and nonliving environment" — can help us understand. Fire ecologists study the origins of fires, what influences their spread and intensity, their relationship with ecosystems, how controlled fires can be used to maintain ecosystem health, and what happens in nature after fires have occurred. They recognize that fire is a natural component of many ecosystems.

The Principles of Fire Ecology

There are three main principles of Fire Ecology that help us understand the role of fire in our natural landscapes.

  1. Fire Dependance: Fire Dependence refers to the ability of fires to make the environment more hospitable for their regeneration and growth of specific plant species. For example, a low severity fire can make nutrients more available to native plant species that would otherwise be outcompeted.
  2. Fire History: This concept considers how frequently fires have occurred in the past in a specific geographical area. By understanding an area's fire history, scientists can better understand the role it has played in its evolution.
  3. Fire Regime: Many factors, including humidity, fuels, and ignition sources determine an area's fire regime. It can also be impacted by topography and wind.


In some ecosystems, fire has historically played an integral role in shaping and maintaining the landscape. As a result, many native plant and animal species have developed unique strategies to withstand blazes. Here are a few examples of how plants and fungi have adapted to fire:

Fire-Activated Seed

Some species require fire reproduce, including California’s giant sequoias: their serotinous cones are glued tightly shut with pine resin, and require concentrated heat to release the mature seeds inside. Other species, like shrubs and annual plants, are triggered to grow by the chemical signals in smoke. In many forests, there lays a rich soil seed bank just waiting for the right conditions.

Thermal Insulation

Some species (such as the Australian grass tree) are thermally insulated against fire by their bark, dead leaves, or moist tissue. Some trees (including giant sequoias), have thick, fire retardant bark that can be burned without damaging their vital tissues. Others are protected by tissues that are moister than usual, which provide thermal insulation reduce dehydration. 


Many species (including several Eucalyptus) will re-sprout if they sustain damage during a fire. In many cases, they have specialized buds that are encased in bark. When the bark burns, the buds can emerge, producing new leaves and branches. Some shrubs and many herbaceous plants rely on underground structures that allow them to come back, even if the above-ground structure has been destroyed.

Fungi Blooms

Fungi can also benefit from forest fires — and the experienced mushroom hunter knows that recent burn sites are among the best places to find morels and boletes.

Fire-Activated Flowers

Fire can change the composition of the soil itself, volatilizing nitrogen and other nutrients for seeds contained in the soil seed bank. Species like Fire Lily and Indian paintbrush are just a few examples of fire-activated wildflowers.

Over millennia, many species have developed adaptations to fire where it occurs naturally. The majority of the fires they were exposed to were of low to moderate severity.

Today, the length of fire seasons, the frequency of fires, and the amount of burned area, are trending upwards. When severe fires occur, the scale of loss may mean that naturally adapted regeneration strategies will not occur. When this is the case, reforestation can help.

Want to help us restore forests that have been destroyed by wildfires? Learn more about what we're doing to help andplant a tree for forest fire recoverytoday!

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Meaghan Weeden
Meaghan Weeden

Meaghan works to share our story far and wide, manages our blog calendar, coordinates with the team on projects + campaigns, and ensures our brand voice is reflected across channels. With a background in communications and an education in environmental conservation, she is passionate about leveraging her creativity to help the environment!