Fires on wildlands have both positive and negative effects on forests. Fires create mosaic patterns of new growth mixed in and around established plant and animal communities. New plant growth after fires provides an abundance of food for many animals. Trees killed by fire provide shelter for birds and other animals. Few animals are killed by fire since most can escape the flames.
In Maryland, fire often kills small trees and other plants, but rarely kills large trees. Fire-caused injuries resulting in decay and deformity can reduce the benefits of the forest community. Mortality from insects and diseases may increase in burned areas. Water temperatures often increase after vegetation shading streams is burned. Higher concentrations of nutrients are found in soils following fires. When plants are burned, the ashes are mixed into the soil releasing nutrients. Water filtering through burned areas washes nutrients out of the soil and into waterways. This may change the chemistry of the water. Fish are more likely to suffer the negative consequences of a fire than are other animals.
Normally, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service responds to 600 to 700 fires annually. During 1990 to 1993, the number of fires each year was lower than average. In 1994, the Forest Service responded to 701 fires. More than 40% of these fires occurred on the Eastern Shore. The rest of the fires were evenly spread across the State.
In an average year, an additional 4,500 fires occur across Maryland burning 450 acres. These fires average 0.1 acres. Paid and volunteer fire departments respond to them quickly.
The Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service assists fire companies in training, providing specialized equipment, investgating fire origins, and enforcing laws and regulations pertaining to wildland fires. The Forest Service concentrates its fire prevention and suppression efforts in the rural and suburban areas. As the suburban fringe increases and people move into forested areas, the complexity of suppressing fires involving both natural vegetation and structures increases. In addition, chances of human-caused ignitions increases. In Maryland, arson is the leading cause of wildfires, accounting for 28%. Debris burning causes 26%, children playing with matches cause 11%, and the remaining fires are caused by lightning strikes, campfires, smoking, equipment use, and railroad operations.