In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Fire Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Databases
  • Bibliographies
  • Early Works
  • Fire Effects
  • Wilderness Fire
  • From Emulation to Variation

Ecology Fire Ecology
John Parminter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0026


Abiotic natural disturbance agents include wildfire, wind, landslides, snow avalanches, volcanoes, flooding, and other weather-related phenomena. Fire is of particular interest because of its antiquity, its natural role in many terrestrial ecosystems, its long-term use by humans to modify vegetation, and its potentially serious threat to life and property. Fire ecology is the art and science of understanding natural and human fire history and fire effects on the environment, species, ecosystems, and landscapes. This knowledge aids the development of fire and ecosystem management plans and activities. Fire history is determined by a number of techniques that use available physical or cultural evidence to examine particular temporal and spatial scales. Fire effects on the environment and organisms are determined by observation and experimentation, but the findings are variable and often contradictory. Fire regimes are used to characterize the role of fire in specific ecosystems and can help guide ecosystem restoration activities. Attitudes toward fire have evolved over time, as good and bad experiences combined with improved scientific understanding to influence our perspectives. Natural disturbances came to be viewed as integral parts of ecosystems rather than external perturbations. We now strive to allow fire to maintain its natural role in wilderness areas and parks and also to emulate natural disturbances, such as fire, when designing forest harvesting operations. This article focuses on how and what we know about fire’s history, its effects on different components of the environment, its role in specific vegetation types, and its relationship with human culture.

General Overviews

Fuller 1991 and Pyne, et al. 1996 provide overviews of fire ecology and describe the evolution of fire management in the United States. Arno and Allison-Bunnell 2002 does likewise for western forests. Beginning in the early 1800s, fire was seen not only as a useful tool but also as a destructive force resulting in the loss of many lives and whole communities in uncontrollable conflagrations throughout North America. A century later fire was viewed by some as a natural and beneficial agent, but fire suppression prevailed as a land management policy until the late 1960s and early 1970s (Pyne 2009). Foresters, wildlife biologists, and ecologists turned their attention to natural disturbances and grew to consider them as integral parts of ecosystem functioning rather than as periodic external perturbations (Sousa 1984) that interfered with succession toward climax conditions. Disturbances are important and widespread phenomena, according to Pickett and White 1985, and fire can now be considered a core ecological process rather than an evolutionary challenge but one whose effects are both variable and unpredictable (Cochrane and Ryan 2009). Binkley 1999 offers an overview of fire as a disturbance agent of northern temperate forests.

  • Arno, Stephen F., and Steven Allison-Bunnell. 2002. Flames in our forest: Disaster or renewal? Washington, DC: Island Press.

    Examines changing attitudes toward fire; historical fire occurrence; the basics of fire behavior, plant adaptation, and fire regimes; and fire effects on soil, water, air, and wildlife. Presents a model for fire management in different zones. Written for the interested lay person and focused on western US forests.

  • Binkley, D. 1999. Disturbance in temperate forests of the Northern Hemisphere. In Ecosystems of disturbed ground. Edited by Lawrence R. Walker, 453–466. Ecosystems of the World. New York: Elsevier.

    A good overview of the dynamics and ecological effects of natural disturbances of northern forests with an emphasis on wind, insects, diseases, and fire. Compares and contrasts the different major fire regimes, from site to landscape scales. Also includes forest harvesting and subsequent stand development.

  • Cochrane, Mark A., and Kevin C. Ryan. 2009. Fire and fire ecology: Concepts and principles. In Tropical fire ecology: Climate change, land use, and ecosystem dynamics.By Mark A. Cochrane, 25–62. Springer-Praxis Books in Environmental Sciences. Chichester, UK: Praxis.

    Provides an excellent, concise introduction to the basics of fire physics, wildland fuel, fire types, fire behavior and intensity, fire regime classification systems, and fire effects as a function of fire severity and ecosystem properties. Although the context is the tropics, these principles have universal relevance.

  • Fuller, Margaret. 1991. Forest fires: An introduction to wildland fire behavior, management, firefighting, and prevention. Wiley Nature Editions. New York: Wiley.

    Chapter 5 is an overview of fire effects, plant adaptations to fire, postfire succession, fire impact on soil and wildlife, landscape dynamics, and the implications of fire exclusion in certain ecosystems. Written for the interested lay person and so provides general information, not in-depth analysis.

  • Pickett, S. T. A., and P. S. White. 1985. Patch dynamics: A synthesis. In The ecology of natural disturbance and patch dynamics. Edited by S. T. A. Pickett and P. S. White, 371–384. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

    Disturbances affect many vegetation types at different levels and share features and basic principles but cannot be explained by a unified theory. This chapter puts natural disturbances in context and describes knowledge gaps and research needs. Contains many useful references.

  • Pyne, Stephen J. 2009. America’s fires: A historical context for policy and practice. Rev. ed. Forest History Society Issues. Durham, NC: Forest History Society.

    Examines fire as a cultural phenomenon and how humans have both used and controlled it while evolving toward industrialization. Fire ecological relationships and socioeconomic concerns determine fire management policies, which are of greatest importance on public lands. Also presents national fire occurrence information for different time periods.

  • Pyne, Stephen J., Patricia L. Andrews, and Richard D. Laven. 1996. Introduction to wildland fire. 2d ed. New York: Wiley.

    Fire history, fire regimes, fire effects, and ecosystem dynamics are covered along with changing attitudes toward fire and ways of dealing with it. Considers the long-term influence of human use of prescribed burning on landscape evolution plus global-level impact.

  • Sousa, Wayne P. 1984. The role of disturbance in natural communities. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 15:353–391.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    A good summary of the determinants of disturbance regimes and effects of disturbances on organisms, populations, and communities at different scales. Fire regimes are determined by the interrelations between six factors. Species reestablishment and patch dynamics are also covered. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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