Updated: Apr 20
Many forests are adapted to grow back after fires if they are located in a fire-prone area. For instance, trees develop thick barks, serotinous cones, fire-activated seeds, and fire-induced sprouts to regrow and get nutrients. Ecological succession also helps the forest to grow back naturally. Better yet, Burned Area Emergency Response Programs (BAER) can recommend stabilization treatments to restore a forest.
Even a small fire can destroy thousands of acres of forests. Fire is part of the natural landscape, be it weather conditions or an accident in the forest.
Undeniably, many wildfires have negative impacts on the forest, its resources, and its habitat. In such cases, post-fire restoration is crucial to curb further damages to the forest and ensure recovery.
The time required for a forest to come back to life depends upon the extent of the fire and the damage it caused. It could take anywhere from 10 to even 80 years for a forest to completely grow back and continue thriving.
In the following blog, we have highlighted ways in which a forest grows back after a fire.
Keep reading to learn how forests can be saved and restored.
How does a forest grow back after a fire?
A fire can increasingly damage a forest. However, there are some natural processes through which a forest regenerates itself. Some emergency programs are also helpful in ensuring the damages caused by the fire don’t escalate further.
1. Trees adapt themselves in response to a fire regime
Some trees develop thick barks, primarily if they are located in fire-prone areas, to protect themselves from the damages of fire. A thick bark is crucial as plants and trees cannot move away from the fire’s path as animals can do.
Ecologists describe fire regimes as the general patterns in which fire occurs in an ecosystem across a period. It is usually described based on season, pattern, frequency, size, severity, and intensity of the fire.
Many plants and animals in a forest start to adapt to a fire regime, including trees.
In fire-prone areas, trees are known for developing thick barks, which do not catch fire easily. A thick bark also protects the living tissues of the tree present inside the trunk, which is mainly responsible for transporting nutrients and trees.
A great example will be Ponderosa Pine, also known as the western yellow pine. It has a flaky and thick bark, which can easily withstand a low-intensity fire.
2. Some plants produce fire-activated seeds
Many plants in fire-prone environments produce seeds that require fire to germinate. These seeds have a tough coating and can lay dormant in the sand for years, awaiting a fire.
Some fire-activated seeds require the chemicals from the smoke to start germinating. Fire also exposes the seeds to some nutrients in the ground.
An example of such a seed is Rhamnacea, which grows in the California Chaparral. Accordingly, some forests can regrow themselves with the help of fire-activated seeds.
3. Pine species develop serotinous cones
In ecosystems where fast-moving fires are quite common, pine species survive by developing thick clones, known as serotinous cones.
Serotinous cones can protect a pine tree for years, even when the enclosed seeds have matured. It’s only when the fire is so intense that the resin in these cones melts. The cones then open to release the seeds, which are eventually distributed by the wind in the environment.
Common fire-stimulated pine species include Table Mountain Pine, which grows in the Appalachian Mountains, and the Jack Pine in northeastern and north-central America.
4. Fire-induced sprouts can help protect dormant buds
In ecosystems where fires are common, some tree species regenerate and regrow via resprouting. Many of their dormant buds are located underground, and the nutrients are stored in the root system. These nutrients help in resprouting quickly after the fire.
The resprouting technique is used by trees such as the shortleaf pine, also known as the southern yellow pine.
5. Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Programs rehabilitate forests after fires
The BAER teams assess burned forests to recommend treatments for stabilizing the fire and preventing further environmental degradation even before a forest fire is out. The BAER program may include planting grass and other plants to prevent soil erosion and harmful weeds. They may also bar off the burned area to encourage recovery.
The BAER program’s goal is to protect natural resources, cultural resources, property, and life. BAER teams often have biologists, vegetation specialists, soil scientists, archeologists, and hydrologists who evaluate and prescribe treatments on critical burned areas.
BAER programs focus on critical areas like acutely burned portions, steep slopes, fragile slopes, and trails, among other valuable facilities. But for the treatments to be effective, stabilization efforts begin without wasting time.
The team could recommend replanting native species, mulching fragile slopes, and improving drainage with culverts. The BAER continues to monitor the stabilization treatments for months. Long-term rehabilitation could last for years.
6. Ecological succession helps regrow trees naturally
After a fire, the ecosystem tries to recover the forest through a process called “ecological succession.” Through ecological succession, the plants, wildlife, and land move through numerous ecological stages.
The first stage of the succession is called ephemerals, through which fast germinating herbaceous plants move into the bare ground. They germinate, grow, and reproduce quickly. These plants are also called forbs or ephemerals.
In the next stage, the grass grows. The grass can withstand dry summer spells, which ephemerals cannot. And accordingly, they start replacing the ephemerals.
During extended periods of drought, the root systems of the grass then become dormant. On the other hand, ephemerals only survive droughts as seeds, sprouting again when the rain cycle begins.
In the next stages, a new species known as the pioneer trees start to appear. These are slow-growing trees that are not palatable to livestock. They can grow in arid, low nutrients, and harsh conditions.
Common pioneer trees include alder, red cedar, yellow poplar, aspen, and black locust. Once the trees start to germinate, the grassland begins to recede. Individual scrub trees now spread across the ground and become rampant.
Once the scrub trees have become dominant on the ground, their crowns form a thick canopy. The scrub canopy produces mulch and soil after laying down a thick layer of leaves and needles.
By the time the scrub trees have matured (which can take over 40 years), they form rich topsoil over the ground. With the help of the canopy, the forest soil now begins to be shaded, and the temperature lowers. The humidity in the environment increases.
Accordingly, taller trees and vines begin to grow as the conditions become more hospitable for growth. The harsher conditions caused after the fire are slowly curbed. The enhanced soil and air also help the taller trees to thrive.
Fires are quite common in forests across the world. Some occur naturally, while others can be the result of a fatal accident. While some fires are not very damaging to the forests, others can wipe up the entire forest.
In such cases, the natural ecosystem can help restore the forest through processes such as ecological succession.
Want to know more about how forests grow back after a fire? Watch this short video on forest restoration.