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To burn or not to burn

Controlled burn moving through a pine stand.

Smokey Bear may disagree with me, but I’d like to argue that fire is one of the most effective tools we have in preventing and managing the intensity and spread of unwanted wildfires. But, I realize that the idea of fighting fire with fire may sound counterintuitive, so let me provide some context of how fire is used to manage Georgia’s various forests throughout the state.     

About 300 years ago, the longleaf pine and its accompanying forest ecosystems covered an estimated 90 million acres of the Southern U.S. That’s a lot of longleaf. It’s difficult to picture what that would look like today, but try to use your imagination. Longleaf was indigenous all along the Gulf and Atlantic Coastal Plains, spanning from Texas to Virginia, well into central Florida, and the piedmont and mountains of northern Alabama and northwestern Georgia. To date, less than 3%, of these old growth longleaf pine forests remain.

Indeed, logging was a driving factor for the loss of much of the longleaf forests, but it also turns out that frequent, low intensity surface fires are critical for maintaining a vigorous ground layer in longleaf ecosystems. Native Americans understood this and used fire to run game, maintain prairies and keep ecosystems healthy; however, over time the reduction of fire disturbance on the landscape became the norm thereby reducing the extent and altering conditions of longleaf pine ecosystems.

Why take fire out of the picture? Here’s a little history for you. During World War II, Smokey Bear was introduced to the public because of a fear that incendiary shells exploding off the Pacific Coast may reach forests and ignite wildfires. Protection of property and forests became a matter of national importance, and a new idea was born: If people could be urged to be more careful, perhaps some of the fires could be prevented. And, so began the beginning of long-term fire suppression efforts.

The advent of Smokey reinforced the perception that all forest fires were bad. Additionally, slash and loblolly pines mature more quickly than longleaf and do not require fire for cultivation. Pine needles were allowed to accumulate in a stand so the landowner could rake for straw. Fire was no longer used in forest management. Without fire, acreages of longleaf pine continued to dwindle. As did populations of the many plants and animals that depended on the longleaf pine ecosystem.

Fortunately, the benefits of fire have been quantified and its use has been brought back as a management tool to be used in our forest systems. Prescribed fires, also known as prescribed burns or controlled burns, refer to the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions that helps restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire. Not only is prescribed fire used to improve and enhance our southern longleaf pine forests, but this tool is also used in northern Georgia to clear underbrush, which reduces wildfire hazards and improves wildlife habitat.

For example, in southeastern Georgia, through the use of prescribed fire, Fort Stewart’s endangered species management program has been successful in increasing the population of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Moving further north into the piedmont geographical region, primary reasons for burning is for timber management and wildlife habitat. Prescribed fire also plays a role in the ridge and valley geographical region. Primary reasons for burning here are similar to the piedmont but there is an increase in hazard reduction being a focus due to the terrain influencing fire behavior and most native forest being a mixture of hardwood and pine. As we move further north into the mountain geographic region, the primary reason for burning is hazard reduction due to the steep terrain heavily influencing fire behavior and intensity.

When speaking with Seth Pierce with the Georgia Forestry Commission, he stated that in the North Zone he covers, approximately 65,000 acres of forest undergoes a prescribed burn each year. Pierce went on to add that this number includes acreage owned and burned by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. U.S. Department of Defense, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. When asked how prescribed fire is used as a management tool, Pierce emphasized that prescribed fire is an important forest management tool that helps reduce the potential of catastrophic wildfire due to the decreased fuels remaining on the ground following a burn. Furthermore, Pierce added, for wildlife, these controlled burns promote new vegetation to sprout, which provides tender and nutritious food sources for wildlife.

This is true across all land ownership in the region. Wildlife habitat and forest management do apply to some burns, but mitigating catastrophic wildfire is a priority. In recent years, scientists have identified quite a few species of flora and fauna in the mountain region that are fire-dependent. Reintroduction of fire in these environments have brought back around some of those species that were once believed to be lost. Science is certainly behind of the importance of and the natural cycle of fire in the mountains but we continue to learn new facts each year. Prescribed fire practitioners use science as part of their planning for prescribed burning in this ecosystem.

Right now, we’re in the middle of what foresters refer to as “burn season.” You’ve likely already noticed large plumes of smoke or have even seen a slow burn move across the landscape. While drifting smoke can be alarming, keep in mind that prescribed fire is a safe way to apply a natural process and reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires. So, the next time you smell smoke from a controlled burn, know that those fires serve many purposes, including wildfire control, wildlife habitat, and forest management.