The Essential Burn: The Healing Power of Wildfires

In a matter of minutes, wildfire can undo centuries of plant growth—and that’s a good thing.

Next time you enjoy a stroll through a Western conifer forest, or take in a long sunset view over the Midwestern prairie, you’d best thank fire, which made those things possible. 

We’re used to thinking of wildfires as natural disasters, the enemy. But in truth, they’re hyper-efficient recyclers, reverting organic material back into its building blocks so new plants can reuse them. Without wildfire, our planet would rely on decomposition—a three-part stew of sunlight, microbes, and fungi. That would take ages, and in the meantime, the ground would become thick with debris and rotten plant matter—as if Mother Nature kept a hoarder home. Seeds wouldn’t root as easily and large trees would choke off saplings from light, causing new growth to sputter out, as has occurred in many Rocky Mountain forests. 

While it’s true that intensely hot fire kills plants and can damage soil, some plants make a good living off flame: The lodgepole pine has cones that remain on the tree, seeds encased in resin, until heat from an understory fire melts and frees them. Then there are lots of seeds available at once, ready to embed in the cleared forest floor with little competition for light and nutrient-rich soil. Other trees (sequoias and ponderosa, loblolly, and longleaf pines) have thick bark that acts as a fire shield, letting those species withstand small blazes. Meanwhile, flames wipe out insects that live in the top layer of soil and damage trees. After a few years of sunlight and water, the forest begins to regenerate, refreshed and renewed. 

Today, fire agencies suppress all human-caused fires, as well as those that threaten human life and property. But in some carefully considered circumstances, they’ll monitor and manage natural wildfires, rather than fight them. And every year there are another 2 or so million acres of public land that forest managers set ablaze in controlled burns to prevent excessive fuel buildup that could lead to large, devastating fires. 

When you think of it that way, natural wildfires—of moderate size and heat—are actually pretty good firefighters themselves.