Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
As deadly wildfires blaze, experts are calling on the state to emulate the South’s long tradition of prescribed burning.
There are three things that give him joy in life, says Johnny Stowe: “Beer, my grandkids, and fire.”
Not a campsite fire, or a house fire, but fire that Stowe prescribes and manages across the wild lands of South Carolina. As a heritage-preserve manager for the state’s department of natural resources, Stowe works with crews to set ablaze predetermined swathes of land around the state, carefully burning off undergrowth with low-intensity flames along carefully planned control lines. Every year, in winter and spring, on days when the weather and wind are just right, Stowe lights up thousands of acres this way. He loves every minute of it.
“Yesterday we had a 105° heat index, I drank three gallons of water, and I was in absolute heaven,” he tells me over the phone. As we speak, Stowe is in the Longleaf Pine Heritage Preserve in Lee County, waiting for humidity to drop so that he can start another treatment. The day wound up being an excellent one for “Rx burning,” he later wrote in an email.
Outsiders may be alarmed by the sight of preserves or farmlands up in flames, but in much of the American South, prescribed fire remains fairly commonplace, especially on private property. Each year, according to the U.S. Forest Service, roughly 8 million acres of land are treated with prescribed fire in the Southeast—more than in all other U.S. regions combined.
To some extent, Stowe’s enthusiasm derives from fire’s dazzling aesthetic qualities. And he loves the connection to history. Growing up in southern Georgia, Stowe learned how and why to burn with his family and neighbors. “It was just part of the culture,” he says. “Everyone did it.”
But mainly, he is obsessed with prescribed fire’s myriad ecological benefits—when it’s performed carefully and correctly. By clearing younger, faster-growing vegetation from the patches of forest floor every few years, prescribed fire protects the health of older trees by lowering competition for nutrients. Research shows that this can help restore biodiversity to ecosystems, and improves habitat for threatened species. In the Southeast, the resurgence of once-ravaged longleaf pine forests has been attributed to expanded use of prescribed fire.
Strikingly, prescribed burning can also reduce the risk of severe wildfires later in the year. About 45,000 wildfires roll through the Southeast every year, more than any other part of the country. Light, prescribed fires keeps the destructive potential of wildfire at bay by cutting down on the natural growth that can fuel them. Of course, prescribed fires produce a lot of smoke, and can reduce visibility. But, says Ed Smith, a forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, “A little bit of smoke from prescribed fires is better than a lot during wildfire season.”
Smith is among a chorus of ecologists calling on more of the U.S. to emulate the Southeast’s fire-friendly ways—especially California, where catastrophic wildfires over recent summers have captured national attention. This year, the state’s wildfire season arrived earlier than ever, and with a vengeance. Since last week, 12 major wildfires burned the state from end to end, scorching tens of thousands of acres, threatening countless homes and structures, and claiming four lives. Persistent drought, high temperatures, and bark-beetle infestations have rendered state forests a tinderbox. As the climate changes, these conditions stand to get a lot worse.
For a century, the name of the game for California fire managers has been suppression, or tamping out blazes as quickly as possible. Suppression is often necessary in such a densely populated state. But as California wildfires become more frequent, intense, and destructive, suppression is increasingly unsustainable in terms of its cost and the manpower it requires. In fact, combined with inconsistent tree-thinning efforts, suppressing blazes has actually increased the risk of major wildfires, as it has left California forests unnaturally dense.
That, experts say, calls for a new philosophy on fire, perhaps one that takes cues from people like Stowe. “We can learn more from the South than we give credit,” the UC Berkeley wildfire expert Scott Stephens told me last fall. “For decades, they’ve had a more sustainable connection to forest and fire than anywhere in the West.”
For many reasons, the West and the South have had very different relationships to wildfire. For centuries, Native Americans in both regions would deliberately use fire to improve foraging conditions and visibility for hunting. According to the fire historian Stephen J. Pyne, early European settlers in in the Southeast, especially Florida, mimicked the practice. Loggers discovered that burning helped trees grow stronger and straighter, and ranchers found it made their cattle’s grass more lush.
Over the years, burning became part of Southern culture. Even after a spate of massively destructive Western mountain fires in 1910 oriented the policies of the nascent U.S. Forest Service almost entirely towards suppression—with a condemnation of prescribed burning as backwards hokum—the regional tradition persisted. As political pressure to prevent forest fires of any kind built in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, especially with the Smokey Bear campaign, a number of Southern landowners still kept burning. Today, many Southern states have laws in place that support private practitioners and ecologically restorative uses of prescribed fire. Pyne calls Tallahassee, Florida, the “Silicon Valley” of prescribed fire, for all of the work going on there researching, promoting, and teaching the practice.
By contrast, westward travelers settling in California didn’t always bring with them a fire-friendly ethos. Though some landowners used prescribed burning—and even passionately advocated for it, according to Pyne—through the 19th and early 20th centuries, fire was largely viewed as a threat, especially as California industrialized and urbanized. Higher population densities pushed state and regional fire agencies to use suppression tactics, even in unpopulated wilderness areas. “In California, if your primary land use is urban sprawl, [suppression] makes sense,” says Pyne. “But anywhere else, it doesn’t. Every fire put out in the city is a problem solved, but in wild lands, it’s a problem put off.”
And, for all of their benefits, the establishment of California’s high air-quality standards over the past few decades has made conducting prescribed burns even harder. For all of those reasons, with only a few exceptions in some of the state’s national parks, prescribed burning has been relatively rare, in spite of calls from ecologists, historians, and advocates.
Slowly, though, California is rethinking prescribed fire. “We are looking to increase the amount that we’re able to use,” says Jamie Tripp, a fuels operations specialist for the Pacific Southwest region of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the bulk of California’s forests. Tripp helps oversee statewide fire-fuel reduction efforts, such as tree thinning and burning. In 2015, the agency treated about 38,000 acres throughout the state with prescribed fire—considerably more than in the previous three years, according to data from the Forest Service Activity Tracking System. She also says that occasionally, if it aligns with predetermined objectives for a particular forest area far from humans, the agency will allow parts of a wildfire that is already in progress to burn—almost as if it had been prescribed.
But it’s no simple directive to set fire to more land. According to Tripp, management goals and environmental limitations are different in every forest range. The windows for prescribed burning—in terms of humidity, wind, temperature, and air quality requirements—are always shifting. In general, they are narrower and less frequent in California’s drier ecosystems than they are in the humid Southeast. Human safety remains the primary focus of California wildfire agencies, and with more and more people moving closer to wilderness areas, it can be risky to burn.
But, “we can’t just fall back on same story that it’s too hard to do,” says Smith, the forest ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, “There are ample opportunities to reintroduce fire. We need to start figuring out how to control all of the variables involved.”
That is beginning to happen. In February, leaders from the Forest Service, the state wildfire-fighting agency CAL FIRE, and the National Park Service gathered with conservation groups and local fire councils to begin work on a statewide memorandum of understanding focused on the use of prescribed fire. With widespread tree mortality and more intense wildfires, “We need to double down on increased community protection and education, at the same time recognizing that prescribed fire has a key role in reducing the intensity of these fires,” stated Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director and California’s State Forester. “Returning more prescribed fire to the landscape can help renew ecosystems and assist landowners in reducing the accumulation of flammable vegetation.”
These are encouraging movements, but it may take some time to convince Californians—especially those living near forests—that fire can be a good thing. Reading the headlines, their anxiety is understandable.
Likewise, in the Southeast, as urban sprawl grows, political support for prescribed fire is loosening somewhat, according to a number of sources. “More people are moving in from the Northeast, and questioning it,” says Stephens, the UC Berkeley ecologist. According to Stowe, the South Carolina forest manager, the problem is “rurbanism”—when people move out of the city, out of the suburbs, and ever closer to wild land. “They want the experience of living near nature, but they bring attitudes of not wanting to smell cattle urine or smoke from fires,” he says.
As much as burning is built into Southern land and Southern culture, it’s still Stowe’s job to explain its benefits, and even its deeper meaning. “Fire has shaped us, and we have shaped the Earth with fire,” he wrote in a recent conference presentation, shared with CityLab. As the U.S. becomes increasingly urban, the human relationship to flames still matters.