What If There Were No Fires?

Fire Shapes Global Vegetation (Nature.com)

In a fire-free world, forest cover would double at the expense of grasslands and savannas say William Bond of the University of Cape Town and his colleagues in the journal New Phytologist. The team used a computer model to predict how plant patterns shift over time with changing climates.

For example, a type of grassland consisting of warmth-loving plants appeared in the tropics between 6 million and 8 million years ago, and quickly spread around the globe. This study suggests that the grassland’s spread was primarily influenced by fire, says Bond, although it is not known why there were more fires at that time.

“Fire is more than an unnecessary evil,” says team member Ian Woodward, an ecologist at the University of Sheffield, UK. Without fire, forests would leap from forming 26% of the world’s vegetation to 56%, reports the team. Tropical grasslands and savannas, such as those in South America and Africa would shrink to half their current extent; temperate grassland and Mediterranean shrubland would be reduced by nearly two-thirds.

“Fire is grossly under-evaluated in terms of its global impact on ecosystems,” says Jon Keeley, an ecologist with the US Geological Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center in California. “Anybody who looks at the global picture will be very surprised,” he adds.

The New Phytologist study is available here. If you access the PDF version, you can see some pretty cool maps of a fire-free earth.

In 2000, recognizing the ecological importance of wildfires, the National Fire Plan was developed. The Bush administration subsequently modified it with the Healthy Forests Initiative, though I couldn’t tell you exactly how, since environmental policy isn’t something that I routinely follow. Naturally, however, environmentalists took exception.

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Robert Garcia Tagorda
About Robert Garcia Tagorda
Robert blogged prolifically at OTB from November 2004 to August 2005, when career demands took him in a different direction. He graduated summa cum laude from Claremont McKenna College with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and earned his Master in Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. Meezer says:

    Environmentalists want nature to be left alone and be protected – as long as it does what they want it to do.

  2. DC Loser says:

    I think where the wildfires don’t pose a threat to life or property they should be left alone. The area in Yellowstone that was burnt in the 90s came back to life very soon afterward with lots of new growth. Fire is nature’s way of clearing old material, just like termites and dead wood.

  3. Alan Kellogg says:

    Then you have elephants. African Savannah Elephants that is. They are in the habit of tearing down and demolishing trees in their home range. Essentially shaping the landscape to their liking, producing an environment with more variety and more ‘graze’ than a well established forest does.

    And sometimes tearing up the country side is fun. 🙂