Northeast Region Fire Program
Northeast Region
bears at Lateral West wildfire on Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Fire and wildlife

Fire's Natural Role

Fire was here long before we were, and plants and animals in some areas of the northeast have lived with fire over generations. Fire has been a frequent, natural disturbance in southern New England coastal areas and the mid-Atlantic region for centuries.

Fire has been a force in creating or maintaining northeastern pine barrens, sandplain grasslands, blueberry barrens, and pine pocosins.

  • Pine barrens, found from southern New England through Long Island and into New Jersey, are inhabited by pitch pine and scrub oak, trees that are well adapted to fire and can depend on it for survival. To release their seeds, the cones of several evergreen trees such as pines, must be exposed to high temperatures to melt their waxy seals. Pine barrens are also home to rare and beautiful plants such as blazing star, wild lupine, and sandplain gerardia (an endangered species) that also need fire to reproduce.
  • Fire controls competing plant species in Oak-hickory forests, found throughout the eastern U.S. Oaks are resistant to fire and benefit from nutrients returned quickly to the soil during a burn. Fire stimulates new sprouts in shagbark hickory.
  • Pine pocosins are a type of bog characterized by evergreen shrubs. Sites such as the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia are home to pine pocosins, which for millennia have been maintained by and adapted to lightning-caused wildfires.

Wildfire and Animals - What's the real story

How Does Fire Benefit Wildlife?

Fire offers many benefits to wildlife and plant species. First and foremost, a fire is a natural process, unlike mowing or logging. Fire returns nutrients to the soil quickly, versus the years it takes for grass clippings, dead leaves, and logs to decompose and provide nutrients. In fact, it's not uncommon to see new growth within a few days of a fire!

Fire also opens up dense areas and helps maintain meadow habitats. Several animal species use these open areas for food and shelter. Birds such as bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks require open grasslands for feeding and resting. Mammals such as moose, deer, and rabbits rely on the new growth produced after a fire for food.

Fire also benefits several plant species such as the endangered sandplain gerardia and wood lily, both which need fire to reproduce and grow. The endangered Delmarva fox squirrel and red-cockaded woodpecker rely on fire to maintain their pine forest habitats.

Fire also helps control non-native invasive plant species. Non-native invasive plants are plants that have been introduced from another part of the world, and have "taken over" their new habitat. No matter where you live, chances are there is some type of invasive plant in your neighborhood. Here in the Northeast, common invasive plants include purple loosestrife, Japanese knotweed, common reed (aka Phragmites), and honeysuckle. Controlled burning can remove these invasive species from a particular area, allowing space for native plants to grow.

Fire is a tool that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses to maintain habitat for wildlife. For example, on Petit Manan Island in Maine, fire teams annually burn vegetation to benefit nesting terns and to deter gulls which are predators of terns. Burning marshes in the Chesapeake Bay area also help efforts to eradicate nutrias, invasive mammals that were once introduced for the fur trade, but have now become a menace.

What do Animals do in a Fire?

Animals react to fire in different ways. Some flee, such as flying birds and running deer. Others burrow into the ground, such as frogs and mice. Not all animals, however flee from fire. Some, like insects who swarm to smoke to mate, are attracted to it.

Individual animals are sometimes injured or killed by fire. However, animal populations are unlikely to be affected. Also, in nature nothing is wasted. Predators and scavengers such as hawks and fox often take advantage of this situation, feeding on escaping, injured, or dead animals. Animals that are not eaten become part of the nutrient rich soil created by the fire, fueling the new healthy plant growth.

Again, fire was here long before we were, and animals have learned how to adapt and live with the dynamic conditions of these fires.

Find out more about what animals do in a fire (PDF).

View a video to see how we plan controlled burns keeping wildlife in mind.

Friend of Fire, the Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly

Karner blue butterfly
Credit: J&K Hollingsworth/USFWS

The Karner Blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) is a small butterfly found in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, and Ohio. Listed as an endangered species in 1992, this insect is dependent on wild lupine plants for survival.

Habitat loss has been identified as one of the main reasons the Karner Blue has become endangered. Lupine grows best in areas like pine barrens that have been affected by natural disturbance such as fires and grazing by large mammals. Without natural fires, forests begin to grow where the lupine once did, and the butterflies can't survive.

Karner Blue butterflies are just one of the many wildlife species that benefit from fire!

Download a fact sheet (PDF) on how we use science at Chesapeake Marshlands National Wildlife Refuge Complex to burn for wildlife habitat.

Burning for wildlife fact sheet

More Fact Sheets on How Fire Benefits Wildlife

Nesting Terns

cover of a fact sheet on how terns depend on fire to survive

Grassland Birds

Cover of fact sheet on how Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge burns for grassland breeding birds

Last updated: April 25, 2014