First published in the Wilmington StarNews
By Angie Carl and Ann Colley
It is one of nature’s greatest ironies: Many of our forests need fire to thrive. Without regular fires, forests degenerate, plants and wildlife suffer, and dense vegetation builds up that can fuel large wildfires.
Native Americans regularly set fire to the land in order to refresh it. But that practice was lost over centuries of settlement and development, not to mention one of the most successful public service campaigns ever: Smokey Bear’s “Remember! Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”
Today, we know better. America’s forests – their trees, understory plant life and wildlife – need to be burned on a regular basis to regenerate and stay healthy. In fact, some of our most beautiful forests and endangered plants and wildlife will perish without regular fires.
Ironically, it was partly because of Smokey Bear’s success that the 2017 fire season was so catastrophic, with 10,000 wildfires burning 8.4 million acres from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. Years of fire suppression helped build up dangerous amounts of underbrush and debris that fueled monstrous wildfires that swept across entire landscapes and burned out of control for weeks. Dozens of people were killed, and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed.
These days, safety officials know that you must fight fire with fire. And conservationists know that fire is essential to maintaining healthy forests – not just the trees, but the ecosystems they sustain. And that’s why they embrace “controlled burns” that are deliberately set, meticulously planned, and carefully controlled to burn specific forested areas under strict conditions.
Controlled burns are managed by teams of fire professionals who map out the area they want to burn, then ignite a fire and direct the burning so that it occurs in a well-defined area; after the area is burned, the workers extinguish the blaze. Local media and neighbors of the burn are notified beforehand, and the entire process is run by a Burn Boss and coordinated with local fire and safety officials. The burns are conducted only when wind, humidity, temperature and other weather conditions will permit a safe, controllable fire.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has used controlled burns in North Carolina for 25 years as a management tool to improve forest health. This year, it will conduct or assist with 200 burns on 50,000 acres.
These burns are necessary for the survival of many plant and animal species that depend on regularly occurring fires, which clear underbrush allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor. In North Carolina, carnivorous Venus flytraps and the federally endangered red cockaded woodpecker, the Sandhills lily (scientific name: Lilium pyrophilum, or literally “fire-loving lily”) and Saint Francis’ Satyr, one of the world’s rarest butterflies, all need fire to thrive.
Many of TNC’s controlled burns are planned to help restore the state’s longleaf pine forests, which support one of the world’s most diverse and imperiled ecosystems, home to more than 600 different plants and animals. The United States used to have more than 90 million acres of longleaf pines stretching from Texas to Virginia. At its low point a few years ago, only about 3 million acres remained. Today, thanks to a concerted recovery effort, longleaf pine acreage has rebounded to 4.7 million acres, which certainly ranks as one of America’s greatest conservation success stories, though the last chapter has not been written.
These controlled fires do not actually burn the longleaf pines, which grow to be about 100 feet high, because their bark is extremely resilient, and fire moves quickly through the impenetrable jungle of accumulated bushes and shrubs and small hardwood tress that crowd the forest floor. Soon afterward, the forest returns to its natural habitat as an open pine savannah, where white-tail deer, bobwhite quail and turkeys freely roam amid natural grasses. Ideally, this cycle of fire and rejuvenation should occur every 2-5 years.
While local and state government agencies in North Carolina are deeply involved in controlled burning, about 60 percent of the state’s longleaf pines are located on privately-owned land, so many of TNC’s efforts are geared toward deepening public-private partnerships.
The Orton Foundation, for instance, manages burns on about half of its 11,000 acres every year and also helps fund controlled burn programs by TNC and another key partner, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF). This demonstrates the collaborative, consensus-driven approach to controlled burning that exists among public and private partners at all levels of government.
Smokey Bear was right – uncontrolled wildfires are extremely dangerous and costly. But for many plants and animals, fire is something they cannot live without, if the fires are properly managed to keep forests healthy.
Angie Carl has managed about 170 controlled burns as the Southeast Coastal Plain Burn Boss for The Nature Conservancy. Ann Colley is executive director and vice president of The Orton Foundation, an affiliate of the Moore Charitable Foundation.