Environmental Impact of Forest Fires by Silvia Milanova, June 10 2011, 11 Comments

The flames that have recently engulfed a large portion of the forests in the West and Southwest may seem 'harmless' to those living far away, but such persistent wildfires can have a devastating impact on our environment and economy.

Wildfires, which can occur from natural causes (less than 3 percent of wildland fires) or human carelessness and accidents, spread very quickly and clear 4 million to 5 million acres (1.6 million to 2 million hectares) of land in the U.S. every year. The number of outdoor fires is also astonishing. For example, between 2007 and 2011, local fire departments responded to an estimated average of 334,200 brush, grass, and forest fires per year. This equals about 915 such fires per day!

Focusing mostly on large forest fires, there are many positives for the environment from these occurrences, such as:

  • Cleaning up forests of dead and decaying matter (natural fuel during drought periods)
  • Maintaining ecosystem balance by removing diseased plants and harmful insects
  • Regenerating seeds through increased sunlight

But be aware that there are also many devastating consequences. These negative impacts are especially true with man-made fires, as these unnatural disasters are unplanned, destructive and can become difficult to tame. Still, regardless of the origin of a flame, these disasters can cause tremendous deforestation and increase the release of carbon dioxide into the air, creating a negative ratio of carbon dioxide and oxygen expenditure. Wildfires can also:

  • Damage the habitat of the environment—which depends on the soil type and the fire’s intensity
  • Affect the species population and distribution after an incident
  • Destroy homes and buildings
  • Incur costly evacuations and destruction
  • Create heavy smog that is harmful to living things
  • Take animal and human lives

In addition, wildfires deplete a lot of natural resources, including water, which could lead to periods of needed water preservation in the area. This can pose additional threats to drought-prone areas such as California. At the same time, the damage caused by a forest fire can prevent the natural process in which soil and leafage normally absorb rainfall. The disruption and imbalance of the water distribution and flow can also cause floods in areas where normally this would not occur.

Although naturally occurring fires cannot be prevented, if you live in an area where there is high risk of forest fires (especially with high summer temperatures), take extra caution to help minimize the risk of man-made fires. Click here for tips on what actions you can take. Let's all do what we can because unfortunately, wild, fast-spreading fires have enormous negative effects that often overshadow their positive environmental contribution.