Smokey the 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 explain.
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 percent, of these old growth longleaf pine forests remain.
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 the 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 the Bear 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.
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 does Fort Stewart use prescribed fire to improve and enhance our Soldiers’ training lands, but this tool is also used to clear underbrush, which reduces wildfire hazards and improves wildlife habitat. For example, 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.
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 as you were driving by Fort Stewart.
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, know that those fires serve many purposes, including wildfire control, wildlife habitat, and forest management. If those are not big concerns to you, please also know that the FS/HAAF Forestry Branch is hard at work using prescribed fire to maintain a conducive training environment for our Soldiers.