THOMASVILLE, Ga. — Firefighters have battled blazes on nearly 4 millionacres of public and private land so far this year — and federal officials areon track to deliberately burn 2.5 million more.
This is not a case of rampant arson.
Federal and state officials, joined by some environmentalists and academics,increasingly advocate deliberately setting fires in wild areas to restoreecosystems and prevent wildfires from raging out of control. Fires are part ofthe natural life cycle of forests, they argue, and help maintain a broaderdiversity of habitats for wildlife. After decades of fire suppression and SmokeyBear, the government now embraces “prescribed fire” as a key tool inmanaging the nation’s forests.
The policy began under President Bill Clinton and has accelerated underPresident Bush, but as it has grown, so has the controversy it inspires. Somecommunity activists complain that prescribed fires pollute the air and damagevaluable hardwoods, and logging companies say the strategy deprives them ofvaluable timber. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is calling on the Forest Service toreexamine the impact on logging, and environmentalists are divided on the issue.
“We’ve lost the consensus, there’s no question about that,” saidformer interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who helped put out forest fires as ahigh school student and pushed for prescribed burning under the Clintonadministration.
The Forest Service — which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month –started quashing fires five years after its inception, after wildfires burnedmore than 3 million acres in two days in Idaho and Montana and killed nearly 100people. In 1935, the Service adopted a national “10 a.m.” policy,demanding its firefighters contain every fire by 10 a.m. the day after theylearned of it. Smokey Bear debuted nine years later, telling Americans, “Onlyyou can prevent forest fires.”
But by the mid-1990s, the federal government had begun to rethink that policy.Five years ago, it adopted a national fire plan that called for treating 40million acres of brush and dense forest by 2010 through logging and burning.
Forest managers prefer prescribed burns to “mechanical thinning”for several reasons. Prescribed burns are much cheaper than thinning, costing$13 to $28 an acre, by some estimates. Foresters light them by hand or set themfrom a helicopter by injecting a few drops of antifreeze into small plasticspheres containing potassium permanganate powder, which ignites several secondsafter the balls hit the ground.
Officials now aim to return forests back to a cycle in which fires routinelysweep through, said Marc Rounsaville, the Forest Service’s deputy director forfire and aviation.
“Just like rain, like snow, it’s part of the natural system,”Rounsaville said. “It’s probably the number one management tool in theSouth, and we’re working hard in the rest of the country to put it into place. .. . Do we get it right every day? No, I won’t lie to you. But we’re gettingbetter at it, we’re getting smarter at it.”
Although the number of federally prescribed burns has more than doubled sincefiscal 2000, many advocates say it is still not enough. Kevin Hiers, who managesfire use in Georgia and Alabama for the Nature Conservancy, a nationalenvironmental organization, said the group has burned 11,000 acres in Georgiathis year — twice as many as last year — and he would like to double thatagain next year.
“We’re on an exponential rise,” said Hiers, whose group works withGeorgia’s Department of Natural Resources. After a forest fire, he said, “thebiodiversity is absolutely astonishing. Something clicks, and you understand howan ecosystem interacts with burning in a fundamental way.”
Shan Cammack, a wildlife biologist at the state agency, is a fire enthusiast.Her cell phone cover features jagged red and orange flames against a yellowbackground, and the word “Ember” stretches across the hood of heragency truck.
“The habitat’s just not there, and the only way to get it back isthrough fire,” Cammack said.
Clad head to toe in olive-green, fire-resistant gear, she came to theprivately owned Greenwood Plantation in southern Georgia this month to enlistmore converts.
The plantation has reaped the benefits of regular forest fires for decades.The 5,200-acre longleaf pine forest has soaring green trees that provide acanopy for wildlife below, along with habitat for the endangered red-cockadedwoodpecker. The woods resemble a scene described by local writer Janisse Ray inher 1999 book, “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood”: “The trees areso well spaced that their limbs seldom touch and sunlight streams between andwithin them.”
Surveying the scene from a helicopter 25 feet above the treetops, Hierspointed out white sap running down the pines, a sign that the woodpeckers arethriving.
“You want the fire to burn, but you don’t want it to be too intense,”he said.
But while much of the South boasts what the conservancy’s national firetraining coordinator Sam Lindblom calls “a culture of fire,” someactivists and lawmakers question the booming practice.
Burns, the Montana senator, inserted language into the Interior Department’s2006 spending bill indicating that his subcommittee “is concerned thatprescribed burning treatments may not always be compatible with the need tobetter utilize commercially valuable biomass products.” While Burns is notseeking to ban the practice, he said, “plain old, everyday-vanilla commonsense tells you that the product they’re burning up could be used.”
On a local level, residents in Georgia and elsewhere complain that smoke fromfires worsens air pollution. Officials now strictly regulate prescribed burnsaround Georgia’s metropolitan areas.
Jerry Williams, who monitors Arkansas’s Ouachita and Ozark national forestsas vice chairman of the Ouachita Watch League, an environmental and citizens’coalition, said the smoke from prescribed burns drifts for miles. In addition,he said, these fires tend to promote pine growth but reduce the number of localhardwoods.
“You don’t have the fire, but you have the smoke,” Williams said,adding that federal authorities now burn seven times more acreage than in 1986and have plans to nearly double that amount.
But the Forest Service’s Rounsaville said fire smoke pales in comparison withpollution from automobiles and power plants, and the agency mostly burns smalltrees that have little commercial value. Moreover, he said, ecologists at placessuch as the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee have documented foryears the advantages of prescribed burns. After suppressing fire on oneexperimental 23-acre plot for nearly 40 years, plant diversity dropped nearly 90percent and red-cockaded woodpeckers vanished.
When it comes to prescribed burns, said Tall Timbers’ fire ecologist KevinRobertson, “in almost every situation we can think of, it’s beingunderutilized.”
But Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University, said it is nosimple matter to reintroduce fire to a landscape that has been reshaped bypeople and development.
“Suddenly, there are all sorts of public health, public safety andenvironmental problems with putting fire back in the forest,” he said.”It’s a long, hard slog.”