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Roasting marshmallows over a fire is a lot of fun, but did you know that, in nature, fire keeps our forests clean and healthy and even helps some plants grow?

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There are lots of things I love about camping, but I have to admit, one of them is s'mores. Who doesn't like sitting by a fire and roasting a sweet, sticky treat? Now, we all know that fires are dangerous and you might think that all fires are scary or bad, but the fact is many fires are actually really helpful.

Fire is part of nature, like water or wind, and it does some pretty cool things that keep our natural places running smoothly. When a fire happens all on its own in nature, like in the woods, it's known as a wildfire, and for many plants, a wildfire can be like a good spring cleaning. In the forest, the ground is usually covered with stuff like dried up leaves and logs from dead trees, and those things can keep new plants from growing. But the thing is, even though those logs and leaves are dead, they're full of nutrients.

Nutrients are things that living things use to stay alive. You and I get our nutrients from food, and our bodies use them to breath, heal wounds, and grow.  But, plants need nutrients too and new baby plants growing in the forest get their nutrients from the soil, where they can soak them up through their roots.

So, how does all that good stuff that's in the dead logs and leaves get into the soil to feed the new plants? Well, most of the time, a lot of the work is done by decomposers. These are insects and fungi and other living things that eat old, dead stuff breaking it up into smaller pieces and passing the nutrients onto the soil. But, that can take a long time. A faster way that the plants can get their food is when a fire comes through, because fire acts a lot like a decomposer.

Have you ever watched a fire in a fireplace, or when you're camping? Have you noticed that over time, the big logs become smaller and smaller until they've turned into a bunch of black and grey powdery stuff? That stuff is called ash. It's what's left over after a fire breaks down big pieces of wood, and it's basically made of all the nutrients that was in the wood that didn't burn. So, ash is like baby food for plants. When a wildfire burns through a patch of forest, it leaves behind a layer of nutritious dark ash on the ground where young plants and new seeds can get the food that they need to grow.

So, that's one way that a fire can help, by giving plants food. But, fire does another really big favor for some plants. Some plants need fire to make new plants. Take a look at this tree. It's called a sand pine tree, and it's found mostly in Florida. The sand pine tree is a kind of plant that needs fire in order to make new trees. The sand pine keeps its seeds in pine cones, and over time the cones drop to the ground. But, the sand pines cones will only open if it gets really, really hot, like when a wildfire burns through. Only then can the new seeds fall out of the cones and into the soil where they can start to grow. And, the timing works out perfectly for the little seeds, because the soil that this tree lives in doesn't have very many nutrients. But, right after a wildfire, the ground is covered in ash and all its nutrients, so that's a perfect time for a seed to drop.

And, you know what else? There even some flowers that need fire. This flower, called the blazing star, needs fire for its seeds to grow, but not because of the nutrients that the fire can provide. Instead, fire helps new flowers get the sunlight they need. Like we learned earlier, fire is really good at clearing out dead stuff, and when a fire burns through a place, like an open field, it gets rid of things like dead grass, leaves, and plants that are low to the ground. And with all of those things out of the way, it becomes easier for sunlight to reach the soil. Then, seeds of plants, like the blazing star flower, can get all of the sun that they need to start growing.

So, fire is dangerous for sure, but it keeps forests healthy. It helps put nutrients back into the soil, it helps some trees let go of its seeds at just the right time, and it even makes sunny open spaces for new plants to grow. Oh, and of course, you can also use it to make s'mores.

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