A satellite image of a swirling hurricane Men with gas masks and protective suits on The planetary rover Sojourner A large group of refugees huddled together







As upsetting as it may be to humans, wildfire is an ancient lord of the wilderness. Its elemental fury has helped shape many of the Earth’s plants and animals over eons of evolution. Fire remains critical today for their continued survival.

Cones of the jack pine tree won’t release seeds unless exposed to intense heat, and charcoal enriches the soil in which they take root. Fire clears underbrush, making way for new generations of food plants for beavers, elk, moose, deer, and other species. These animals in turn are preyed on by wolves and mountain lions. Eliminating underbrush also creates the open sunlit areas that encourage old-growth forest. The bald eagle, symbol of the American Republic, uses snags created by fires for perching and nesting sites.

Ideas about suppressing all wildfires have given way to the practice of allowing some naturally occurring fires, such as those set off by lightning, to burn under carefully controlled conditions. Sometimes fires are deliberately set in selected areas. The idea is to help prevent disastrous outbreaks due to excessive buildup of underbrush, as well as to allow renewal of habitat.

One such “controlled burn” went wrong in the summer of 2000, burning more than 45,000 acres (18,200 hectares) and threatening the U.S. nuclear weapons facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. When left to its own logic, though, fire renews far more life than it destroys.

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A close up photo of fire consuming dry pine needles  Click on this photo to enter photo gallery

Firefighters talk about the dangers of their work.

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A major fire sweeps through Yellowstone National Park in 1988.

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About 90 percent of wildfires are started by humans. The other 10 percent are started by lightning.

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