Forest fires are a part of nature; they’re both powerful change agents that shape ecosystems. The specific pattern of fire—including how frequently it burns, how hot it burns, and during which season—helps dictate the types of plants and animals found in a given area. This affects the goods and services that these places provide to people, and can have implications for human safety.

Wildfires had an essential part of in the ecology of many of Colorado and New Mexico’s biotic communities prior to Euro-American settlement. Whether lightning-caused or started by native peoples, wildfires were once quite common occurrences throughout the grasslands and forests of the region. These frequent fires maintained an open forest structure in the ponderosa pine forests and prevented tree encroachment into the grasslands.

A century of fire suppression in the Southwest has significantly decreased the incidence of low-intensity natural surface fires, while the number of catastrophic wildfires in the region’s forests has increased dramatically, especially during recent drought conditions.

Around the world, fires are behaving differently now than they have throughout history, primarily as a result of human actions. In many places, for example, climate change is causing more frequent and more intense wildfires.

Land managers directly affect how and where fires are allowed to burn by managing wildfires and also by setting controlled burns. In places with fire-adapted plants and animals, such as the southwest, managers are increasingly using fire as a tool to increase ecosystems’ resilience to the impacts of climate change and other threats, ensuring that natural areas continue to provide clean air and water for people.

Learn more about maintaining fire’s natural role in fire-adapted ecosystems, such as the southwest.

Click here for information about the 2015 Fire Ecology and Resiliency project launched by the Chama Peak Land Alliance and The Nature Conservancy.

For a USDA Forest Service Southwestern Frequent Fire Forest Video Series, click here.