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Can Forest Fires Start Naturally? (& How They Benefit Our Ecosystem)

A forest fire, broadly known as a wildfire, is an uncontrolled, unplanned fire that occurs naturally in rural and urban areas. Earth is very flammable due to its carbon-rich vegetation, high atmospheric oxygen, seasonal dry climates and vegetation, and widespread lightning and volcanoes in certain regions.

Forest fires can occur naturally; they are caused by dry climates, lightning, meteors, volcanic ignitions, or coal seam fires. Once a fire is ignited, all it needs to survive is heat, fuel, and oxygen. Fires are classified based on their fuel, such as ground, surface, ladder, and canopy fires.

You get fires that occur naturally but also human-made ones; these are either planned or unplanned. Fires can be hazardous, but they are also very beneficial for the vegetation and animals; these outweigh the disadvantages of natural fires.

How Do Forest Fires Start?

There are two ways that forest fires can start, either by natural or human-made causes. Whether natural or human-made, fires can be terrifying and can cause a lot of destruction in an area. In rural areas, they can destroy vegetation and can kill many animals, insects, and reptiles. In urban areas, they can damage infrastructure, and they can be the cause of human deaths. 

The three elements required to start a fire include heat, fuel, and oxygen; if one of these is not available, it will dwindle out. Oxygen is always available in the atmosphere unless the fire gets confined in a closed space. The fuel needed for a fire is anything that can burn easily, such as dry leaves, wood, grass, trees, and so on. The heat of the fire will burn the fuel and will spread and destroy the surrounding area. 

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What Are The Causes Of Forest Fires?

Only about 4% of forest fires are due to natural causes, while 85 to 90% are human-made. Some of the reasons for naturally occurring forest fires are lightning, volcanic ignitions, a dry climate (droughts), high temperatures, meteors, and coal seam fires, depending on the area and situation. Natural forest fires are rarely started due to the spontaneous combustion of dry material such as sawdust and leaves.

The most frequent cause of forest fires is lightning strikes that occur in an area. There are two types of lighting, cold lightening and hot lightening, one of them being the leading cause of fires. Cold lightning has a more intense electrical current with a short duration. Hot lightning has a current with a low voltage that lasts for a more extended period; this type is the cause of most natural fires.

Very high temperatures and droughts are not the ignition point of natural fires, but it produces favorable conditions for it to start. In these conditions, there is a lot of excess dried-out materials that fuel a fire. 

If a forest fire starts in an area that is very dry and has strong winds, it will sustain itself well, and it can cause a lot of damage. With these conditions, a fire can spread very quickly, and it can get out of hand where not much can be done to control it. 

The Type Of Forest Fires You Get

There are three types of fires, smoldering fire, flaming combustion, and glowing combustion. A smoldering fire is when there is a lot of smoke from the fire but no flames; this is not well self-sustained. A flaming combustion fire is when it has many flames, and a glowing combustion fire is in its late stages, it has a slow rate of combustion and blue flames. 

Forest fires are also classified depending on where in the forest they burn; these include:

  • Ground fires occur on the ground of the forest, usually beneath the leaves. These fires are fueled by roots, duff, and other buried biological matter. They are typically smoldering fires where there is a lot of smoke but no flame; they generally burn slowly for a few days to months.  
  • Surface or crawling fires develop on the forest’s surface, 1.3 meters high that feed on low-lying vegetation such as leaves or timber litter, grass, and debris. These fires burn at a lower temperature than crown fires and spread at a slow pace unless accelerated by a strong wind.
  • Ladder fires fuel themselves on the matter found between the low-vegetation and trees canopies, mainly small trees, vines, and fallen logs. 
  • Crown or canopy fires occur on the top of the forest trees, these are the most dangerous fires, and they spread the fastest. They can either be dependent on the surface fires burning the crowns, where they occur at the same rate as the surface fires, or they can be very destructive where they jump from crown to crown. These fires feed on tall trees, mosses, and vines.
Canopy fires occur along the top of forest trees

What Are The Benefits Of Fires?

Periodic forest fires can be beneficial for ecosystems and animal life because they eliminate any dead organic matter and help with the ecosystem’s life cycle. 

Improving Soil Fertility With Fires

Over time, a layer of dead or decaying plant and animal life can collect on the surface of the forest. This layer reduces new plant life from growing efficiently; the soil cannot gain access to nutrients, and animals cannot get to the ground effectively.

Forest fires help remove the layer of decaying matter and release nutrients into the soil as it quickens the decomposition time of the plant matter. Opening up the soil and increasing its nutrient content improves soil fertility, helping a healthy ecosystem thrive.

Plants Thriving From Fires

Plants that grow in areas where wildfires are common have learned to adapt to surviving in these conditions. These adaptions include physical protection, increased growth, or flammable materials that may encourage fires and reduce competition. 

Some plants need fire to continue reproducing; some plants need fires to release their seeds enclosed in a hard covering such as pine cones. Some plant species rely on fires to initiate and improve germination. These include lilies, lodgepole pine, lupines, Banksia, and many more.

Certain plants such as Eucalyptus contain flammable oils released to fuel fires and leaves with a protective layer to resist heat and drought. These plants encourage fires and easily survive them, making them more dominant over plant species that cannot survive fires. Other plants protect themselves from fires with their dense bark, shedding their low branches and high water content.

Animals Benefiting From Fires

Fires are beneficial for animals that need specific plants to survive; fires are necessary to encourage plant germination and seed dispersal. If fires do not occur, plant species will not flourish sufficiently, leading to low food availability and places for animals to make their nests.

The survival rate of animals during fires is relatively high; they have a natural instinct to flee to safer areas or burrow underground. Fires help remove invasive species that are not well adapted to fire-prone areas. It helps control and eradicate invasive species within an area that may be invading ecosystems. 

The Disadvantages Of Having Forest Fires

The benefits of naturally occurring fires outweigh the adverse effects of them. The disadvantage of fires is atmospheric pollution due to the carbon dioxide, carbon molecules, and ozone precursors they release. These chemicals can affect people’s health, animals, and the climate in that region and surrounding areas.


Fires can be easier to put out in their early stages, although if they get out of control and become dangerous, proper authorities are needed. Firefighters have the necessary equipment and skills required to put fires out and keep others safe. 

Naturally occurring fires are common but so are human-made fires, which happen more often these days; this is very dangerous in more populated areas. Fires can be harmful and destructive, but at the same time, they are very beneficial to the environment’s ecosystems promoting growth and life. 

Fires are needed because they are valuable to our ecosystems. Thus, it is best to promote controlled fires in populated areas to reduce damage caused rather than avoiding and suppressing fires in these areas.

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