Almost every century weather elements come together in just the right combination to cause a major fire that ravages Yellowstone National Park. These fires are a necessary part of the forest’s Eco-system. However, the ecological aspects of these Yellowstone forest fires do appear, at first glance, to be gloomy and for a long time any fire was squelched.
Many old growth trees lay dead on the smoldering ground and those standing are charred far up their trunks. Black soot covers everything and the smell of smoke dominates. But, this is only part of the story, because underneath the burn-scarred earth, the forest is renewing itself and life goes on.
Less than an inch down, under the charred soil, are nutrients, roots and seeds able to survive the raging fire. Ash left by the fire also adds nutrients to the soil. Within a year of a fire, patches of green dot the forest floor and within two years, wildflowers carpet what had once been a desolate place.
The weaker animals, unable to flee the fire, are gone now, creating heartier wildlife stock. The tangle of underbrush and litter of fallen limbs is also gone. At last, after years of living in the shadow of the forest canopy, the sunlight again reaches the ground and brings forth another generation.
The serotinous cones of the lodge pole pines that have kept their seeds glued tightly inside for generations, respond to the fire’s heat by bursting open and shedding thousands of seeds on ash-enriched soil. Birds flock back to the area to feast on these but many of the seeds will sprout.
The dead remains of trees still standing offer the perfect home to insects that thrive on dead wood. These insects attract woodpeckers and other birds necessary for the pollination of other plant life in Yellowstone. The birds also spread seeds in their droppings.
Forest fires help thin the number of trees and this in turn helps create habitat for elk and smaller wildlife such as woodchucks, mice and ground nesting birds. When there is no sunlight reaching the ground, undergrowth, which offers cover for these small creatures, cannot grow.
A new forest is growing in Yellowstone today. It isn’t the same as it was because different things define how it grows. Each change to the landscape, whether its erosion, a firebreak or a man made road has a bearing on how the forest responds, but the ecological outlook of Yellowstone’s future is good.