The ecology of fire

A Landscape Shaped by Fire

Fire is an essential component of many North American ecosystems. The plant and animal species of our Midwestern grasslands and woodlands have existed with these fire ecosystems for hundreds of thousands of years, selected for success by characteristics that make them well adapted to fire. As these basic ecosystems evolved over millions of years, fires were sparked by lightning. During the last several thousand years, they were regularly ignited by native Americans for their own benefit, adding to a fire based ecosystem.

Today, fire remains a key to sustaining healthy native ecosystems, performing a “house cleaning” function that prevents brush and invasive species from choking our preserves. Controlled burns, also known as prescribed burns, release nutrients back to the soil; stimulate germination in seeds of many native plants (including some rare species), increase flower and seed production of others; and open the woodland floor to sunlight so that native trees, wildflowers and grasses flourish. The resulting profusion of flowers, seeds and fruits is critical to the survival of wide variety of animals of all kinds and sizes, from insects to birds to mammals.

Habitat loss, by destruction or degradation, is widely recognized as the single most important cause contributing to loss of species. Without fire, native habitat is destroyed. Controlled burns are an essential part of habitat preservation.

Pyne. Stephen J. 1982. Fire in America. A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire. 654 pp. University of Washington Press

Anderson RC, Fralish JS, Baskin JM (eds.) 1999. Savannas, barrens, and rock outcrop plant communities of North America. 470 pp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.