Fire Fuels the Cycle of Life

1. True or False: Forest fires can be good for an ecosystem. Think it’s false? No, it’s true! Forests actually need to release the minerals stored within dead and living plants and trees. Fires keep the forest from taking over the meadows that border it. After a large fire, these fields grow rapidly because of the nutrients set free by the blaze. Forest fires make new habitats, encouraging greater plant and animal variety. The greatest number of different species is found about 25 years after a major blaze.

2. In 1972, when scientists found out that fires were helpful, national parks adopted a new policy: No one would fight any fire started by a lightning strike. Most fires caused by lightning would go out by themselves in a few hours. This would result in minimal damage while allowing natural and necessary blazes.

3. However, during the summer of 1988, Yellowstone National Park had a serious drought. No rain fell. Old, dead pine trees lay stacked on the forest floor like logs in a fireplace. On June 14 lightning started a fire. Due to the policy, it was left to burn, but when it still hadn’t gone out on its own after five weeks, things looked grim. Finally, people started fighting the fire. By then the situation was completely out of control. The fire raged all summer, stopping only when snow fell in September. The gigantic blaze had destroyed almost half of the Park, burning about a million acres. It seemed like a big disaster.

4. Yet in a forest, the cycle of life is based on fire. Just one year after Yellowstone’s huge fire, its forest showed new growth. Its most plentiful trees, lodgepole pines, have cones that actually need the high temperatures of a fire to open and drop their seeds. Their tiny saplings poked up through charred soil. A flowering plant called fireweed blanketed the area.

5. After another 200 years, Yellowstone will burn again, and the cycle will start over.

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