Wildland Fire and Ecosystems

This article is part of the Wildland Fire Learning In Depth series. It is designed for students who want to learn more about fire. Find the complete series on the Fire subject site.

wildland fire at Sequoia National Park
Wildland fire at Sequoia National Park in California.

Fire is one of nature’s oldest phenomena, probably developing simultaneously with terrestrial vegetation and the evolution of the atmosphere.

Fire Environments

Evidence of free-burning fire has been found in petrified wood and coal deposits formed as early as the Paleozoic Era, approximately 350 million years before present.

Likewise, fire is a cultural phenomenon. It probably was the first product of nature that humans learned to control. Early societies used fire to kill and collect insects and small game for food; as a tool to clear land for agricultural activities; as a communication device to create smoke for signaling; and as a weapon against enemies. More recently, beginning with the industrial revolution, humans harnessed fire in engines to power machinery.

Initially, lightning was the spark that ignited fires. Later, once humans learned to initiate fire, its occurrence became much more widespread. Today, approximately 10 percent of all wildland fires in the United States are started by lightning strikes, and the remainder are caused by humans.

Unquestionably, fire greatly affects the earth’s natural environment and ultimately results in significant evolutionary change. However, such change cannot be fully understood until the process of fire itself is understood.

Last updated: February 13, 2017