Smoke will plume above the state’s timberlands again this winter, looming over nearby neighborhoods as forest owners strike a match to clear away pinestraw, fallen limbs and other debris that stunts growth and can fuel destructive wildfires.
The tradition is a century old, going back to the days when remote forests could be burned thousands of acres at a time. More than 12 million acres in South Carolina are forest and most have to be burned at some point or eventually they will erupt in wildfire.
But each year more homes and forest visitors crowd those acres. And the damage that these controlled, or prescribed, burns cause to trees and habitats is becoming more of a concern across South Carolina.
As a result, at least some of the burns this year will be across smaller pieces of land than in the past, and large-scale burners such as the U.S. Forest Service are at least listening to critics who say smaller burns make it easier to protect the ecosystem and stay more acceptable to people nearby.
“They can be just as effective if not more effective (than large-scale burns),” said Rebecca Turner, programs and policy director for American Forests, a nonprofit woodlands advocate.
Large wildfires have become nearly an annual nightmare in the state and across the nation. There was the 2016 Pinnacle Mountain blaze that was one of a series of fires across 60,000 acres in South Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina. The smoke from it blew all the way to Charleston.
Out west, the nearly 300,000-acre Thomas fire still burns in Ventura County in California, the largest in the state’s modern history.
The destruction to property and ecosystems has been in the billions of dollars.
While cutting down the size of burns makes them more expensive and time-consuming to conduct, the advantage is that smaller burns allow fire managers to work closer to populated areas where the risk of wildfire is the greatest.
Managers must wait for the right combination of moisture on the ground and wind blowing away from developed tracts. The smoke can hang in the air, spurring nuisance complaints and breathing difficulties, and occasionally cutting down visibility on smoke-fogged roads. So those acres end up burned less often.
Reacting to the Pinnacle Mountain fire, the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism will burn as much as 1,000 acres in the Upstate in 2018, among 4,297 acres statewide. The Upstate burns have been planned as small as possible for the safety of people and buildings. Each will be 300 acres or fewer, according to department staff.
Federal lands are also an issue. Carolina Wildlife Syndicate, a hunter’s group, has been pushing to reduce the size of the U.S. Forest Service’s burns in the Francis Marion National Forest near Charleston, and in the Sumter National Forest in the Midlands and Upstate.
The group says the large-scale burns, often several hundred to more than 1,000 acres, disrupt wildlife and kill too many acorn trees and timber trees.
S.C. Department of Natural Resources officials are considering the smaller burn option on the national forest lands they manage for wildlife.
Forest Service officials — who have a long-entrenched policy of conducting the biggest burns possible — might be becoming more open to the go-smaller philosophy.
“We are currently working on a new prescribed fire environment assessment. The public will be given an opportunity to comment (on it),” said spokesman Jeff Davids.
But he cautioned, “the Francis Marion prescribed fire program is tasked with managing a large landscape encompassing 259,625 acres. We manage at scale, so we burn at scale.”
Smaller burns were conducted for years on the 9,000-acre Cainhoy Plantation, between the rural Cainhoy community and the Francis Marion forest, without causing much alarm in the neighborhoods, said activist Fred Lincoln. But that plantation is now under development, which means the community will abut the national forest.
“It would be something for the Forest Service to look at it, if it’s at all feasible,” he said. “I know they have to burn. If they don’t we’ll all be in danger. I think the problem now is going to be visibility with the heavier traffic.”