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Experts suggest that implementing "prescribed burns" in the southeastern region of the United States could benefit forests.
Science & Health

Experts suggest that implementing “prescribed burns” in the southeastern region of the United States could benefit forests.

Jesse Wimberley and their neighbors set fire to the woods.

They utilized innovative methods to bring back a traditional communal practice by igniting wiregrasses and forest debris using a drip torch and containing the embers with leaf blowers.

Wimberley, who is 65 years old, brings together groups from eight counties in North Carolina to prevent future wildfires by intentionally burning leaf litter. The controlled burns create open areas for the growth of longleaf pine, a type of tree whose seeds are unable to germinate in areas with dense undergrowth. Since 2016, this fourth-generation burner has been leading a growing movement to organize and formalize these volunteer efforts.

Prescribed burn associations are proving key to conservationists’ efforts to restore a longleaf pine range forming the backbone of forest ecology in the American Southeast. Volunteer teams, many working private land where participants reside or make a living, are filling service and knowledge gaps one blaze at a time.

The controlled burning of prescribed fire, which mimics natural fires and is essential for maintaining forest health, often requires more manpower than is available from experts. In North Carolina, this practice may occasionally conclude with a barbecue.

According to Wimberley, individuals from the southern region enjoy gathering and participating in activities, assisting one another, and sharing meals. He emphasizes that fire is not a solitary activity.

North Carolina State University researchers have identified over 100 associations across 18 states, with a concentration of new ones in the Southeast. One such association is Wimberley’s Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association, which is recognized as the first in the region. The group has assisted approximately 500 individuals with land clearing or provided education on how to do so independently.

The proliferation follows federal officials’ push in the past century to suppress forest fires. The policy sought to protect the expanding footprint of private homes and interrupted fire cycles that accompanied longleaf evolution, which Indigenous people and early settlers simulated through targeted burns.

Courtney Steed, an outreach coordinator for the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association and a member of the Lumbee Tribe, stated that fire is a healing agent for both the land and their people. She also mentioned that it helps reconnect them with their cultural traditions.

The longleaf pine ecosystem spans just 3% of the 360,000 square kilometers it encompassed before industrialization and urbanization. But some pockets remain, from Virginia to Texas to Florida. The system’s greenery still harbors the bobwhite quail and other declining species. The conifers are especially resistant to droughts, a hazard growing more common and more severe due to climate change.

Environmentalists, hunters, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies came together to rejoice in the expansion of the longleaf pine range, which has grown by 53% since 2009. This growth covers approximately 20,000 square kilometers. Unfortunately, it did not meet their target of reaching 32,000 square kilometers.

FILE - A prescribed burn takes place, April 5, 2023, in North Carolina.

On April 5, 2023, a scheduled controlled fire occurred in North Carolina.

Private individuals who own land are a key part of the coalition’s current project to restore the land. According to America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative, they own about 86% of the forested land in the Southern region.

The collaboration requires a large number of fresh landowners to aid in maintaining longleaf forests on their land. The newly formed burn associations play a crucial role in educating landowners, as outlined in a 15-year plan published in November.

The government supports the effort by organizing events like workshops on managing land and removing invasive species. Over $50 million in grants from the federal government are up for grabs for initiatives that improve the health of forests, including prescribed burning.

The United States Department of Agriculture has implemented the “Longleaf Pine Initiative” in collaboration with burn groups like the one in Wimberley. Funding from the farm bill is used to support the planning and planting efforts, and staff members are available to assist with the installation of firebreaks.

According to USDA spokesperson Matthew Vandersande, there is a growing competition among applicants for limited funding that is insufficient to cover all the necessary maintenance burns.

Landowners claim that states are hesitant to allow their limited number of controlled burners onto private land due to liability concerns, and private contractors are unable to keep up with the demand.

Keith Tribble, a 62-year-old owner of a tree farm in North Carolina, stated that when it is time to ignite the match, you are essentially left to your own devices.

Although state forestry services offer courses, Tribble acknowledges burn associations for the practical training and teams necessary to effectively handle pine forests.

According to Bennett Tucker, the superintendent of Hitchcock Woods and manager of a private forest in South Carolina, the most influential elements in creating a burn plan are humidity and wind speed. Due to the oils found in pine trees, they are able to easily sustain fire, therefore Tucker typically conducts burns when the humidity levels are between 25% and 50%.

Tucker explained that through a prescribed fire, we have the ability to regulate the location, timing, method, and other contributing elements by selecting optimal conditions.

Portable weather monitors guarantee that wind velocity, temperature, and moisture remain within predetermined parameters. These guidelines also have the potential to minimize liability in case of a wildfire. According to research conducted by federal organizations and surveys of local burn organizations, uncontrolled fires are uncommon. Despite conducting 40 burns annually, Wimberley’s teams have yet to experience one.

The amount of days deemed safe for burning is decreasing due to climate change. According to Jennifer Fawcett, an expert on wildland fires at North Carolina State University, higher temperatures are leading to lower relative humidity in the South and longer periods of extreme dryness.

As storms, droughts, and wildfires become more severe and frequent, longleaf pines may play a crucial role in promoting ecological resilience in the Southern region. Their deep roots provide stability during strong winds and reach deep into the ground for water, while flames help enrich the soil with nutrients.

Additionally, the ecosystems in the area have limited competition for biodiversity compared to other regions in the United States. Sunlight filters through the open canopy and illuminates the sparsely populated ground, allowing for the growth of unique plant species such as insect-eating plants that require both sunlight and moist soil. The native vegetation serves as a food source for gopher tortoises, who also create burrows up to 4.5 meters deep, providing shelter for other endangered species.

FILE - A longleaf pine tree is seen on Jesse Wimberley's property Nov. 8, 2023, in West End, NC.

On November 8, 2023, while in West End, North Carolina, a tree of the longleaf pine species was observed on the property belonging to Jesse Wimberley.

According to Lisa Lord, conservation programs director at The Longleaf Alliance, the goal is not just to plant trees, but also to fully restore the forest’s various benefits.

In the late 1920s, a campaign called the “Dixie Crusaders” aimed at educating people had a negative impact on interconnected relationships. Government officials convinced southern residents to disapprove of the practice of burning, resulting in a decrease in the burning of flammable materials such as needles and wiregrass. This caused a buildup of these materials, leading to potentially hazardous levels of tinder.

Wimberley’s family resisted, knowing their livelihoods depended on fire. His ancestors first applied it to “sweat” out the pine’s lucrative sap distilled into turpentine or exported as sealants. Later generations burned to shield crops.

The act of burning now appears distinct from when Wimberley’s mother would collect “fat lighter” kindling from the forest. However, the recognition of its significance is being restored and more people are joining in.

Tribble, the owner of the tree farm, declared that we are all pyromaniacs.

However, Tribble’s passion remains strong for a specific purpose: he cherishes the opportunity to form bonds with individuals and the environment.

Prior to his injuries, there was a lot of brush on the ground, blocking the flow of water to certain areas of the property that were extremely dry. However, now the water can flow freely from marshy areas and the distinct call of the elusive red-cockaded woodpecker can be heard from the mature pine trees. When there is smoke in the sky, wild turkeys can often be seen.

The Lumbee outreach coordinator, Steed, is encouraged by the resurgence of the proactive “fire culture” among non-tribal communities, which she credits the tribe for bringing to the area.

When she was young, she used to run through her grandfather’s woodland that had been burnt, but it has been ten years since it has experienced a fire. Next year, Steed intends to oversee her initial controlled burn in the woods of Wimberley and then take care of a family land that she recently acquired.

Steed expressed that prescribed fire gives a sense of empowerment. This method allows for a tangible connection to the past and provides guidance for the future.