Forest fires play an important ecological role by activating seeds, cycling nutrients, and maintaining diversity. And indeed, many forests evolved with fire and are capable of regenerating naturally after an average small to medium-scale fire.
The causes as to why forest fires occur are wide-ranging, but it is estimated that only 10 to 15% of wildfires are a result of natural events, whereas the majority of forest fires, 85-90%, are a consequence of human activity.
The most common naturally-caused wildfires occur during droughts or dry weather. Under these circumstances, trees and other vegetation are converted to flammable fuel. Lightning storms serve as an ignite for fires, which combined with warm weather conditions and strong winds, lead to wildfires. In some ecosystems however, forest fires have a crucial role in shaping and maintaining the landscape.
As for human-caused forest fires, these can be a result of various activities, with the most common ones being:
Unfortunately, recent years have seen some of the most devastating wildfires in history, with many burning hot enough to destroy seeds and completely degrade land and soil.
Major consequences of forest fires are:
Almost 10,000 square km of rainforest were burned in the Amazon Fires in 2019. Often started by ranchers to clear land for agriculture (mostly, grazing cattle and growing soy), these fires devastate the ecosystem. Part of a disturbing deforestation trend in one of the most climatically important regions in the world, the intensive burning has sparked international condemnation.
The Amazon Rainforest— otherwise known as the lungs of the earth — is a huge carbon store and a vital buffer against climate change. When the Amazon burns it impacts the entire planet, but the fires especially affect the poor and indigenous populations whose livelihoods depend on the forest.
Despite strict government regulations against illegal burning, Indonesia saw an additional 500,000 hectares burned after more than 236,000 burned in 2015. And when high pressure systems returned with a vengeance in 2019, another 900,000 hectares of forest were lost.
In addition to harming Indonesians, these fires put the native Orangutan population at risk and affect neighboring countries like Malaysia, who have urgently called for better management of the situation. With the annual GHG emissions in Indonesia rising and affecting the livelihoods of many, it's important that we come together to help the local Indonesian communities reforest degraded land.
Australia, a “fire-formed continent,” is no stranger to wild bushfires that end lives and destroy property. An integral part of the landscape, major fires are not unusual. But in recent years, Australians have seen a trend of longer and more severe fire seasons than even they are used to.
This culminated in December 2019 with their hottest day on record: 107.9 degrees Fahrenheit, and unprecedented destruction as the Australian bushfires spread across the country, killing over 1 billion animals and burning up nearly 6 million hectares of bush (as of January 2020). New South Wales, in particular, has seen unfathomable destruction, with the loss of 3.6 million hectares, 1,500 homes destroyed or damaged, and 24 people killed.
In 2017, British Columbia experienced unprecedented burning, prompting the displacement of 65,000 people and the longest Provincial State of Emergency in British Columbia’s history. The Hanceville Fire burned 240,000 ha of land, burning intensely
enough to reach a rank of 6 and create its own weather system. Due to this intensity, it is estimated that up to 30% of the forest would not have been able to return without help.
How did this happen? Over several years, diseases and insect infestations decimated enormous areas of the forest, providing the perfect conditions for a fire to take hold.
Planting trees helps to restore damaged ecosystems, stabilize soil, support the water cycle, and slowly recover the vital ecosystem services that we all depend on.
These six pillars help to explain why we need to plant trees:
After wildfires, reforestation is essential in areas where the fire intensity burned off available seed supply within the soil, and/or where there are not enough healthy trees still growing and producing new seeds nearby.
When planting doesn’t happen soon enough, invasive species can quickly establish dominance in newly cleared landscapes. This reduces biodiversity and increases the likelihood of future burns.