In certain environments, such as the forests of California, relatively frequent fires are a natural way of clearing away dead brush and making room for newer, healthier shoots. When people move in to these areas, however, any forest fires are immediately suppressed so there is no danger to people’s homes. Unfortunately, this means that when a fire does occur, there is so much excess dead plant material built up that the fire becomes enormous and can sometimes rage out of control.
In prairie ecosystems, fires prevent the take over of woody plants. The fires also burn the native grasses, returning nutrients to the soil without burning the roots promoting the regeneration of native grasses.
Natural fires are part of ecological succession. There are certain conifers (needled trees) that require fire to reproduce. Their seeds lie dormant in the soil, sometimes for years and are ready to sprout after a fire.
While I agree with paclemens and nelsam’s answers that fires can be a good thing for forest ecosystems, this does not mean that the overwhelmingly destructive forest fires we have seen throughout the United States in recent years (especially California) and other parts of the U.S. (and world) are not something to worry about. In fact, with the rise of global temperatures, scientists predict we will be seeing more large-scale fires such as these – some scientists say this is not a bad thing, others say to say so is outrageous and offer some convincing arguments as to why (see the article attached by Mike Dubrasich titled “SOS Forests”). I would also have to whole-heartedly disagree with skpennell’s answer in which she says that there is no danger to people’s homes in areas that see a lot of forest fires like California because in these residential areas, fires are “immediately suppressed”. This is extremely misleading because the damage that California wildfires have caused is overwhelming – this is especially true of the fire that occurred in Southern California in 2007, which was one of the worst fires in California history (see attached article). I would also like to add that the damage to homes and businesses that fires cause, can be harmful to the environment in and of itself – the amount of chemicals and toxins released in to the air can be enormous, and can remain in the Earth for years to come. An interesting article related to this can be found here: http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5gr5rdm5Nhj7bJzN8eWl1aO5eLp-w
I noticed that the SOS Forests article is no longer available at the link I provided. Here is another link where you can find it. http://westinstenv.org/sosf/2011/01/01/global-warming-forest-fires-and-sos-forests/
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