While the thought of forest fires is anathema to many, especially environmentalists, the fact is that in forested areas, fires are a natural part of the environment. Forest fires are neither innately destructive nor beneficial; it depends largely on where and when the fire occurs. The changes that occur in a wooded area as a result of burning can, in fact, be beneficial in the changes it makes to plant and animal habitats.
Native Americans used fire in the forests of virgin pine to enable better access, to improve hunting, and to clear the land of undesirable plant species to enable farming. This practice was continued by the early European settlers on the North American continent.
Controlled burning, also called ‘prescribed’ burning, can also reduce the small plants and brush that feed uncontrolled fires, thereby limiting the damage they cause. Controlled burning is less expensive and damaging to the environment than alternative methods of plant control such as chemicals, and, when done by experts under prescribed conditions, has been found to be the most effective way to achieve forest management objectives.
The U.S. Forest Service has incorporated controlled burning into its forestry management plans since the mid-1990s. This technique had been used since the service’s establishment in the early 1900s, but has often been criticized by environmentalists. This criticism, however, often fails to take into account or understand the benefits that can be derived from a controlled burn.
Objection to and limitations on controlled burning grew out of the situation that had developed during the late 19th century, when logging had left vast tracts of land with dried brush and smaller plants that were vulnerable to uncontrolled fires which caused extensive property damage and economic loss. In many states laws were enacted to ban controlled burning, which was common in many agricultural areas, to prevent damage to property and humans.
In Texas, for instance, where the Forest Service manages 675,000 acres of public lands, controlled burns are used to help mitigate the damage caused by the annual brush fires that often blanket the northeast part of the state with smoke so dense that if often interferes with commercial aviation. Planned burns are announced on the Forest Service’s Web site complete with a downloadable .pdf map of the state.
Controlled burning is done during the cooler months of the year to reduce the buildup of fuel which lowers the likelihood of hotter and more extensive fires during the brush fire season. In addition to mitigating the potential damage from accidental fires, controlled burning also stimulates the growth of desirable trees, renewing the forest. Some coniferous trees; the sequoia for instance, require heat from fire to open their cones and disperse the seeds for germination.
Studies have shown that controlled burns over a number of years can even aid in restoring an area to its original state, as they remove the litter and undesirable growth that limits the growth and health of dominant species. While “Smoky the Bear’s” campaign to ‘prevent’ forest fires sounded like a good idea when it was first launched, the unintended consequences often were a proliferation of undesirable plants and a decrease in value of the ‘protected’ acreage. The prevention of disastrous uncontrolled fires is desirable – of that, there can be no doubt – but, the aim, if what people want is a healthy eco-system, is to ‘control’ forest fires, and that is what the U.S. Forest Service does.