By Eric Aldrich
By late afternoon one day last January, a small and tired crew was packing up its gear in the longleaf pine forests a half-hour drive south of Tallahassee, Florida.
Crew members were impressed at what they had just accomplished: In one long day, they had successfully completed The Nature Conservancy’s largest controlled burn in the United States, helping mimic what nature has done for thousands of years in the longleaf pine forests of the American Southeast. With the help of a helicopter they had burned 12,000 acres, mostly on Flint Rock Preserve, half owned by the Conservancy and half by The Shine Foundation.
Like most other controlled burns led by the Conservancy, the remarkable achievement at Flint Rock was done in close coordination with fire departments, government agencies and neighbors. And like most other controlled burns, it was done for the dual purpose of restoring forest health and enhancing community safety by reducing flammable fuels, thus reducing the likelihood of devastating fires such as the tragic one recently experienced in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Flint Rock is one of many examples of coordination and achievement around the country in 2016. In fact, 2016 was a record year of controlled burns for The Nature Conservancy.
In all, the Conservancy led controlled burns on 154,577 acres across the country, an area larger than Chicago. By comparison, Conservancy staff and volunteers usually burn an average of 118,000 acres a year in the United States.
In October 2016, the Conservancy's Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module traveled to the Willamette Valley in Oregon to help the Oregon chapter and other local stakeholders with prescribed burns. Photo © Jason Houston.
Helping Nature & Communities
In 2016, trained Conservancy staff also provided assistance for government agencies and other organizations on an additional 306,033 acres in the United States and Africa. Those cooperative efforts are vital because they improve safety and increase good fire outcomes, such as reducing fuel loads, restoring wildlife habitat and protecting water sources.
“We were thrilled to have a year of record acres burned in 2016,” says Blane Heumann, director of fire management for the Conservancy. “The numbers speak not only to the amount of acres managed with fire, but also the to the level of coordination, the record of safety, and the forests that are restored to healthier conditions."
Much of the increase in 2016’s controlled burns was in the Southeast’s longleaf pine forests. This classic Southern forest type – of which only 5 percent remains today – is intimately tied to fire. For thousands of years, fire has shaped the forest, stimulated seed germination of trees, and renewed the forest floor’s rich plant life.
“The increase in controlled burns in the longleaf forests involved much more collaborative burning with government and private forest managers across the south,” Heumann says. “Combining resources allows us to safely burn larger areas on any given fair-weather day during local burn seasons."
The Conservancy has long been a leader in the safe and ecologically-appropriate use of fire to restore forests and grasslands and help keep surrounding communities safe from unnaturally intense fires. Nationwide since 1962, the Conservancy has led carefully controlled burns on 2 million acres of its own lands and other private and public lands.
Crew members manage a prescribed burn as it moves through an area of longleaf pine forest in Moody Forest Natural Area near Baxley, Georgia. Photo © Rich Reid.
Collaborating is Key
Longleaf pine forests are among many other forests and grasslands around the country that depend on fire to be healthy. Professionally planned and managed controlled burns, performed by trained staff, restore and rejuvenate the abundance and diversity of plants and animals. A forest’s response after fire is often dramatic and beautiful, with plants coming back greener and more vigorous after a burn.
To accomplish safe controlled burns across the country with other agencies, the Conservancy collaborates with the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior in a program called the Fire Learning Network. The network helps agencies and organizations (including the Conservancy) plan and implement carefully controlled burns, train and exchange staff, and share lessons learned.
This kind of planning and preparation can also occur within communities, which is why the Conservancy is also helping lead the national Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network. This initiative is helping towns around the country figure out how to make their neighborhoods less vulnerable to wildfires that are occurring outside their borders.
From performing controlled burns to training professionals and preparing communities, the Conservancy is proud of the work we accomplished in 2016. We are looking forward to reporting more good news again a year from now!
Learn more about the careful use of fire to manage forests and grasslands.
Eric Aldrich is a Nature Conservancy writer and volunteer firefighter in his hometown in New Hampshire.
Nearly a year after a controlled burn at Florida's Flint Rock Preserve, vegetation is vibrant and the longleaf pine forest is responding with vigor. Photo © The Nature Conservancy (David Printiss).