Fire, fire everywhere

Published 7:49 pm Friday, August 29, 2008

By By Erica Newman
'Southern forests need fire in the same way that rain forests need rain.'
That was a favorite expression of Larry Landers, former director of research at Tall Timbers Research Station in Florida. Landers spoke a truth that we in North Carolina continue to ignore at our peril: our forests are fire-dependent. That is, they have evolved to be flammable and require frequent fire for their very existence.
Too many of the wildfires we are seeing across our state are examples of costly and dangerous consequences of excluding fire for too long. Our current tendency is to suppress fire, but when fire suppression is coupled with unwise development, it inevitably leads to greater destruction in both human and ecological terms. Excluding fire from fire-evolved areas leads to the “shading out” of hundreds of understory plants and loss of habitat for the animals that depend on them. At the same time, pine needles and dead, fire-ready materials accumulate on the forest floor in place of a living understory.
Before the advent of modern fire-suppression techniques, lightning strikes caused large and frequent fires. Native Americans and early settlers would also intentionally introduce fires to forests in the coastal and central South every one to three years. These frequent fires would thin and regenerate the trees, consume fuel loads on the ground and stimulate seed production of understory plants.
In the modern, densely settled landscape, the vast majority of naturally occurring fires are quickly put out. With the long-term build-up of tinder on the forest floor and unnaturally dense undergrowth, wildfires tend to burn at the canopy level and are vastly more difficult to control than prescribed fires set under favorable weather conditions. These overstory burns endanger people, property, houses and negatively impact air quality for miles around.
With North Carolina’s population set to double in the next 50 years, we urgently need to take sensible steps to reconcile the need for our forests to burn with the desires of North Carolinians to live in safety and comfort. Consider the following three proposals.
First, we need many more controlled burns, also known as “prescribed fires,” as an alternative to the policy of after-the-fact suppression of wildfires. This will require that North Carolina residents tolerate occasionally smelling smoke for brief periods of time at levels that are not a health risk.
Second, people who settle in this region should be encouraged to do so in a “firewise” manner. In fire-prone areas, new buildings that do not conform to Firewise standards should be denied building permits. Home-insurance rates should be set at a much lower rate for houses built with metal or fireproof roofs and maintained so that they are easily protected from wildfires than houses built with flammable materials and surrounded by shrubs, flammable debris or unkempt lawns (which only act as tinder). With out-of-staters relocating to North Carolina in record numbers, we will soon have living here a large group of people who do not remember how the land was once managed with fire and have no context for understanding it. Education and proper economic incentives will produce the safest kind of development.
Third, regulation of burning needs to distinguish yard-waste and trash burns from prescribed fires managed by trained personnel. In this way, properly trained and equipped fire teams can burn under conditions that are not appropriate for yard-waste burns, which are not usually attended by fire crews and fire-fighting equipment.
With responsible fire management and firewise development, we can help protect our state’s natural beauty and biological diversity along with the lives and property of its human residents.
Erica Newman is a wildlife biologist and a North Carolina Division of Forest Resources Certified Prescribed Burner. She is also a member of the North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council.