Controlled burns are not a new concept in the United States. Natural patterns of forest fire have occurred for centuries. This was primarily the result of lightning strikes, and Native Americans also used a rotational “burn system” to keep the soil healthy and viable for continued use (Wenger, 2013). Nevertheless, fire suppression became a standard operating procedure in U.S. forest systems. The main issue that has encouraged fire suppression is that of the concern people have with the damage fire can do. Some of this concern is for the loss of personal property or crops in the event of a fire. Yet, our own programs have contributed to creating this menace (Burton, 2012). Fire suppression has in fact enabled conditions in which fires can be much larger and much more devastating. This ultimately serves to create less healthy forest systems and loss of habitat for many species (Jones, Cox, Toriani-Moura, & Cooper, 2013).
Historically, fires occurred in woodland areas in cycles of approximately every ten years or so (Zhiwei, Hong, Yu, Longyan, & Bernard, 2013). Much of this has been the result of naturally occurring lighting strikes that serve to ignite fires This created an efficient system in which the nitrogen needed for the nourishment of plant life, released into the soil after a fire, could be replenished to maintain the integrity of forest species (Burton, 2012). Another benefit to frequent fires was the clearing out of the understory of a forest. Without a mechanism in which to control the robust growth patterns of certain species, diversity is lost due to the takeover of certain species. In order for a forest system to stay viable, there must be a variety differing species. Ultimately, a regular burn method serves to keep forest populations thriving. Frequent fire conditions helped keep both forest understory and canopies healthy.
Perhaps having learned from watching nature regulate itself through fire, Native Americans also adopted this regime, and often burned areas of the forest and fields on a rotating basis (Wenger, 2013). Often times this was conducted every three to five years, allowing the burnt areas to regenerate before returning to reuse them (Jones, et al., 2013). Additionally, early European settlers saw the benefit of this practice in Native American communities, and instituted controlled burns to improve conditions in which foraging, visibility, and access could all aid in survival (Jones, et al., 2013).
As settlement in the U.S. expanded, and people moved into the further reaches of the forest, fire suppression programs were put into effect. This is readily seen as being encouraged in the use of symbols like Smokey the Bear (Wenger, 2013). There is a long history of using this character as a means to inhibit any type of forest fire. In fact, it has only been since the 1980’s that land use programs even began to consider using fire as a management tool for non-game wildlife (Jones, et al., 2013). Previously, burn management had been used only as a means to facilitate herd management primarily for the sake of hunting (Wenger, 2013). More recently there has been wider acceptance of the role our interventions have played in not maintaining the health of the forest ecosystem. In relationship to stemming the benefits of frequent fires, we have instead created an environment in danger of huge and devastating forest fires (Burton, 2012).
Some of the consequences of suppressing natural fire cycles, and discounting the views of those familiar with the benefits of typical burn patterns, has affected a number of species. Plant and bird species are most at risk (Jones, et al., 2013). For example, Bachman’s Sparrow and other rare species are reliant on the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forests of the southeastern U.S. to conserve their populations (Jones, et al., 2013).
using prescribed fires to “remove hardwood shrubs, promote grasses and forbs, and create open ground-level conditions” (Jones, et al., 2013) are essential to maintain forest health.
Forest fires are an essential part of any natural forest system. Despite the natural pattern of burns, the use controlled burns by Native Americans and early settlers in the U.S., fire suppression became a standard operating procedure in U.S. forest systems. This system created the menace of enormous forest fires, damaging forest systems and allowing for the loss of habitat for many species. Contrary to negative effects of fire suppression practices, frequent prescribed burns adds nitrogen to the soil, allows for the control of the understory, and promotes biodiversity. Although the general public may feel that forest fires are something to be feared and avoided at all costs, this is a natural mechanism that has a long history. To maintain and protect the ecological wellness and biodiversity of forests, for the benefit of all species (including humans), it is essential that we adopt new approaches and policies regarding burn management practices.
- Burton, D. (2012). Introduction to Forestry Science Hardcover. Cengage Learning
- Jones, C., Cox, J., Toriani-Moura,E., & Cooper, R. (2013). Nest-Site Characteristics of Bachman’s Sparrows and their Relationship to Plant Succession Following Prescribed Burns. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 125(2), 293–300.
- Wenger, T., (2013). Burn 20 acres and call me in the morningResult_45. Legacy Magazine, 24(3), 22-3.
- Zhiwei, W., Hong, H., Yu, L., Longyan, C., & Bernard, L. (2013). Determining Relative Contributions of Vegetation and Topography to Burn Severity from LANDSAT Imagery. Environmental Management, 52(4), 821-836.