Fire Basics for Kids

Our Fire Basics section is designed for kids who want to learn more about fire.

What is Fire?

What role does fire play in different ecosystems?

Fire is a chemical reaction that starts with lightning, lava or a match. How it burns depends upon three key things. What it leaves behind can be surprising.

Fire is the combination of heat, oxygen, fuel and an ignition source—known as the fire triangle. Fuels include grasses, needles, leaves, brush and trees. Natural ignition sources include lightning and lava. Fire management staff sometimes starts fires to improve habitat or restore natural systems. However, sometimes people also start unwanted wildland fires through carelessness or arson.

Where and how quickly a fire moves depends on the terrain, weather and types of fuel. Fires burn faster up hillsides than they do on flat ground. The heat rising from the flames pre-heats the grasses, shrubs or trees on upslope. Like sheets of paper, grasses burn quickly, up to several miles per hour under extreme conditions. Larger fuels, such as logs, may take hours or even days to burn completely. While windswept flames can leap into the crowns of trees and burn entire trees in seconds, many fires merely creep along the ground slowly burning brush and forest litter.

The diversity of plants and animals you enjoy in many national parks can depend upon fire. What may look at first like devastation soon becomes a panorama of new life. Fire starts critical natural processes by breaking down organic matter into soil nutrients. Soil, rejuvenated with nitrogen from ash, provides a fertile seedbed for plants. With less competition and more sunlight certain seedlings grow quickly.

Fuels Include Grasses, Needles, Leaves, Brush and Trees

bison in the distance eating

Grasses at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas.

Brush and Shrubs at Theodore Roosevelt

Brush and shrubs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota.

Trees at Crater Lake

Trees at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.

Denali Tundra

Tundra in Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska.

Burning Uphill vs. Flat Ground

Uphill Burning at Glacier National Park

Uphill burning at Glacier National Park, Montana.

Jewel Cave Burning

Burning on flat ground at Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota.


closeup of bison

Animals quickly return to an area after a fire. Soon tender green grass will grow and provide a good food source for the bison at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas.

Seedlings grow after a fire

close up of tree trunks

Sapling sequoias grow in the area of the 1988 Congress prescribed fire at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California.

closeup of seedlings

A grass stage longleaf pine at Horseshoe Bend National Military Park, Alabama.