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Fire Starter: Why We Burn in North America


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Fire Starter: Why We Burn

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By Kerry Crisley and Jon Schwedler

“If you put a fence around a piece of land and call it a wildlife refuge, a nature preserve or a wilderness area, is it really conserved?”

That’s the question posed by Bob Bale, fire and restoration manager for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. And his answer is “no.”

Conservationists, he says, recognize that invasive plants and pests, pollution and fire suppression can hurt protected lands, no matter how high a fence is built around them. So even through great efforts go into establishing legal protection for land, in most cases that is only the beginning.

And yes, you read correctly: fire suppression can hurt.

Smokey the Bear didn’t get it entirely right. Some areas evolved through centuries of light, naturally-occurring fires and have come to depend on them in order to thrive. Pitch and longleaf pine, for example, are cued to release their seeds when heated by fire. And the freshly burned ground creates ideal conditions for germination.

But as human communities grew, people began putting out these fires. In fact, today 80% of America’s forests and grasslands are departed from their healthy cycle of fire.

This caused two problems.

First, the composition of the land began to change. In the pine barrens of the Northeast U.S., scrub oak grew dense, crowding lower-growing plants like blueberry and huckleberry. In the pine savannas of the Southeast, fast-growing loblolly pines were grown in close-quartered plantations, replacing more open longleaf pine forests. These forests became less suitable for the birds and butterflies that prefer a more open and sunlit canopy.

Second, when fires did occur, they suddenly weren’t so light. With decades of dead branches, needles and leaves built up on the forest floor, wildfires now burned intensely, threatening the surrounding neighborhoods and killing helpful microbes in the soil.

We can’t let wildfires run rampant, but complete suppression of fire is bad for the forest and dangerous to people. How we can give nature what it needs while keeping communities safe?

The answer, says Bale, is controlled burning, a method of land management that the Conservancy uses in forests and grasslands across North America. A controlled burn is the careful application of fire to the landscape to both reduce the buildup of woody debris and create the kind of habitat preferred by native plants and wildlife.

“Burns are conducted by trained and experienced teams,” says Bale, who is a certified “burn boss” himself. “Specialized equipment and strict protocol are used to ensure the safety of the crew, nearby residents and private property. Also, conditions such as weather, wind and humidity are watched closely and have to be just right.”

At Myles Standish State Forest in Plymouth, Massachusetts, Bale stands at the edge of a 150-acre area that was treated with controlled burning in 2009. The spot is a dramatic example of fire’s power to restore space and sunlight to an overcrowded forest: the view stretched for hundreds of yards. Pitch pines were sprouting fresh green branches out of charred bark. Wrens, warblers and sparrows chirped and flew in and around the trees.

Quick results like this are not uncommon; at the Conservancy’s Nassawango Preserve in Maryland, a rare hybrid orchid that had not been seen for decades sprouted after burns were applied the year before.

Back in Massachusetts, we turned to face an unburned stretch of forest and saw a dense wall of vegetation, which typifies a barrens that has not seen fire in decades. Bale is working with the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to plan burns here as well.

Partnerships, he says, are the key to effective burns. Not only does the Conservancy share staff and resources across states (Bale works on burns from Maine to Pennsylvania), they frequently team up with the military and state and federal agencies to burn on public and private lands. The Conservancy has taken a “three-legged stool” approach to support these partnerships through our Fire Learning Network, National Fire Training Program, and LANDFIRE mapping project.

Partnering means more and larger burns. That, in turn, leads to results like the Conservancy’s Kitty Todd Preserve in Ohio, where consistent controlled burns helped bring lark sparrows and Karner blue butterflies back to the region’s oak savannahs. And the Piney Grove Preserve, which harbors Virginia's last breeding population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. Burning here has expanded both the pine savannah habitat the birds prefer, and the numbers of breeding woodpeckers themselves.

“We can’t each focus on our own backyard,” says Bale. “If we help each other burn the really big areas in all our states, we see success.”

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