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Forests after a fire: How long does it take to recover?

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Photo by Intermountain Forest Service, USDA Region 4 Photography under Public Domain Mark 1.0


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NOVEMBER 28, 2022

Driving past a forest that is ravaged by a fire can often look like going through a scorched ghost town. The trees are charred black, leaves are nonexistent and no wildlife seems present. It is almost apocalyptic as you pass through, with all semblance of a once-thriving ecosystem erased in a matter of minutes. 

Last spring while I was driving to Yosemite, many of the trees from fires from years past were still black and charred. It appeared as if a fire had just occurred, although it had been quite a long time. With so many recent California wildfires, many people will start to think about the timescale of ecosystem rehabilitation and when forests will go back to “normal.”

To preface, forest fires have been and still are quite integral to the normal cycles of a forest. However, with the increasing intensity and frequency of fires, the normal cycle is beginning to shift. Low-intensity fires should occur in a healthy ecosystem every five to 25 years, but we are now seeing more top-heavy fires that occur almost every year.  

The denser the vegetation before a fire and the longer a fire persists, the more severe the effects will be on soil and ground cover. Higher-intensity fires therefore end up in further erosion, inhibiting the process of natural rehabilitation. Many variables contribute to whether an ecosystem can recover quickly from a fire, including any previous fire-resistant adaptations, the strength of the fire and total land mass destroyed. 

A research team from Australian National University found that forests’ ability to recover from a fire can stretching to more than 80 years. This means that we may continue to see devastated landscapes post-fire for many years to come, impacting the ability for wildlife to reemerge and humans to recreate in these areas. 

A University of Colorado Boulder study noted that in the Southern Rocky Mountains the post-fire landscape is becoming unsuitable for future growth of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. This finding from their research reveals that if fires continue to drastically harm the soil quality and ecosystem health, it may be hard for local trees to regrow in those areas.

Without healthy forests, humans will have limited access to healthy foods, pristine air quality and spaces for outdoor activities. Many actions are being performed in order for forest recovery to be monitored from the National Park Service playing a key role to various nonprofit organizations such as the National Forest Foundation and One Tree Planted.

Although many different organizations have a range of objectives, the premise is to foster forest rehabilitation and growth. The Old-Growth Forest Network is a nonprofit organization that is working to protect old growth forests, which is a forest that is at least 120 years old and exerts extreme ecological diversity. This is extremely important because old growth forests provide some of the most diverse habitats in the world and if they were to be destroyed by fires or other causes it will be impossible to rehabilitate them to their full capacity. Forests absorb 30% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, playing a vital role in our mitigation strategy to reduce GHG emissions.

Therefore, both mitigation and rehabilitation are of equal importance in the movement to protect ecosystems across the world. At UC Berkeley, we have a niche Forestry program that focuses on forest, woodland, and grassland management. As an Ecosystem Management and Forestry major, students can choose to specialize in the department of forestry. From there, they can even study fire science, which studies fire prevention and management — key to the state of California’s well-being. 

In 1991, a deadly fire came through the Berkeley hills, destroying more than 3,500 homes and becoming one of the most deadly in California’s history, known as the Tunnel Fire. The issue of fire safety and destruction is well-versed in both the Berkeley community and the state of California, breaking apart communities and homeowners’ livelihoods. Not only do intense fires have devastating ecological consequences, but are intrinsically tied to human lives and interactions. 

Almost everyone in California has either firsthand experience with fires or has seen it secondhand, making the issue extremely important to residents who are in zones of high fire likelihood. Forests are vital to our survival, and protecting them should be a top priority in the movement to create a sustainable world.

Contact Ashley Carter at 


NOVEMBER 28, 2022