By Samantha Max (The Telegraph) & Maya Miller (Climate Central)
Mark Melvin lit a match and dropped it to the forest floor. He then lit another and another, blazing a circle of flames around a towering pine tree.
Soon, a bright orange glow swallowed 113 acres of brush, radiating a skin-piercing heat. A thick fog rose from the ground, casting a shadow on the amber tree trunks looming above.
Lighting fires is like playing a game of chess, Melvin said. You always have to be one step ahead.
“I can see the fire before I light it,” he said.
Melvin is no arsonist. He’s a forest manager, responsible for about 18,000 acres of woods at the Joseph W. Jones Center at Ichauway Plantation in southwest Georgia. The expansive range, once the quail hunting preserve of Coca-Cola’s former president and host to distinguished guests like former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is now a living laboratory for some of the country’s leading environmental scientists.
Each winter for the last two decades, Melvin has set fires to cement that legacy. On days when the weather and wind allow, he makes a detailed plan, applies for a burn permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission, and suits up in a mustard jacket and brown leather boots for a few hours of fire and smoke. For him, fire is not just destructive — it’s an agent of change. The flames lick away layers of pine needles and fallen leaves, clearing a path for sunlight to seep in and sprout fresh shoots of grass.
Forests need fire. Without them, plants die, animals leave, and mounds of flammable undergrowth pile high. Rather than wait for a lightning strike or cigarette butt to spark an uncontrollable wave of flames, Melvin conducts controlled burns, also known as prescribed fire.
“Just like a doctor prescribes medication to keep their patient healthy, we prescribe fire to keep the forest healthy,” Melvin said.
Fire managers across the United States are grappling with more frequent, extreme wildfires caused in part by a changing climate and nearly a century of ardent fire suppression. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, increasing temperatures along with the knee-jerk tendency to extinguish fire has created an environment ripe for higher-intensity, larger flames, according to a study published last month in Ecosphere.
But the Southeast takes a different approach to fire.
In 2018, Georgia, Florida and Alabama prescribed burns to more than 4 million acres of land, while the remaining 47 states and territories burned about 2 million acres combined, according to data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and analyzed by Climate Central. Experts warn this data may undercount prescribed burning, but a country-wide survey by the National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils similarly found that, in 2017, the Southeast was responsible for two-thirds of the nation’s prescribed burns.
Although each state requires a different amount of prescribed burning to sustain a healthy ecosystem, many states with sizable amounts of federal and state lands aren’t meeting their goals. Staff at the U.S. Forest Service, which treated only about 1% of the nearly 200 million acres of land it manages with prescribed burns in 2018, are alarmed by their own agency’s lack of burning. For the first time in history, they’re considering restructuring the agency to facilitate more prescribed fires.
“We may need to update our workforce model from its traditional focus on wildfire response, with prescribed fire conducted as available, to a focus on prescribed fire with wildfire response as needed,” acting assistant director Francisco Romero said when asked about the agency’s declining proportion of funds allocated toward the practice over the last five years.
With more record-breaking wildfires ravaging the West each season, claiming lives and incinerating homes, many environmentalists, firefighters and foresters in the Southeast are wondering why they haven’t been asked to share their strategies — and why federal funding for researching the practice is now on the chopping block. Some say replicating Georgia’s model could make it easier to burn in highly regulated states like California, and other Western states.
“Until cultural attitudes toward fire change, and government agencies allow the well-accepted science around burning to inform land management, we will continue to put ourselves at a greater risk than we have to be in,” said Crystal Kolden, a fire specialist at the University of Idaho who led a study comparing regional prescribed burning practices that published today in Fire. She found that in the last two decades, non-federal entities in the Southeast carried out 70% of prescribed burns in the United States.
Melvin knows that to convince others to warm up to the practice, he has to light fires with care. Before he signs his name on a burn plan, he meticulously checks air quality conditions and wind direction to ensure the burn will be safe and as unobtrusive to neighbors as possible. There’s too much at stake not to, he said.
“It doesn’t matter how many years of experience I have, how many burns I’ve conducted, how many successes I’ve had,” Melvin said, as clouds of smoke billowed behind him. “If I mess up one time – one time, in the right way – that’s, you know, it’s career ending.”
The deep roots of fire skepticism
Just after noon on a Tuesday in March, three women munched on to-go platters of biscuits and macaroni and cheese from Cracker Barrel, faces lit up from the wall of computer monitors in the Georgia Forestry Commission’s permitting center in east Macon, Georgia. Phones rang and keys clicked as the permitters toggled between satellite maps and air quality reports.
During burn season, extra staff help field the hundreds of calls pouring in from property owners throughout the state, hoping to conduct a burn. Of Georgia’s 37 million acres of land, about 90% are privately owned. When someone applies for a burn permit, the Forestry Commission checks conditions near the location to ensure a fire won’t blow smoke on a busy highway or balloon into an out-of-control blaze. Then it’s up to the landowner to decide whether or not to burn. The goal is to issue a permit within five minutes, said Ken Parker, wildland fire specialist for the commission.
“He’s the one who has to drop the match,” Parker said about a landowner who had just called in for a permit. “So just because he calls and gets that permit from Georgia Forestry Commission, he’s the one that has to ultimately make that decision. ‘Can I? Just because I got the permit, should I?’”
Societal norms around fire have fluctuated throughout history. Native Americans in the Southeast burned land for farming and hunting purposes centuries before Europeans colonized the region. (Today, the Bureau of Indian Affairs allocates the greatest proportion of its wildfire suppression spending toward prescribed burning out of the Department of Interior’s four land management agencies, according to data collected by Climate Central). Colonists later adopted the practice to clear land for new settlements. Throughout the 1800s, fire was used to manage grazing areas on farms, prevent wildfires from spreading, reduce risk of rattlesnake bites, and kill ticks.
Around the Civil War, attitudes toward fire soured. Northerners who weren’t familiar with the importance of fire in southeastern ecosystems bought plantations and land for railroads and stopped burning.
Meanwhile, millions of people streamed into the U.S., building cities in previously forested areas. The cataclysmic fires that consumed Chicago in the 1870s, and the blazes that seared Montana and Idaho in 1910, tethered fire to destruction. The Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service, established in 1905, decried prescribed burning and called for a moratorium on fires.
The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 withheld federal funding for forest protection from states that allowed prescribed fire, according to a report by the Forest Service. Three years later, the American Forestry Association launched the Southern Forestry Education Project, an initiative aimed at educating Southerners about the detriments of forest fires. These “Dixie Crusaders” covered more than 300,000 miles throughout the region, passing out pamphlets, screening films and hosting lectures about the dangers of wood burning.
John Shea, a psychologist hired by the Forest Service, interviewed residents in the country’s southernmost states, hoping to “delve deeper into the human or social roots of the wood-burning problem.” He published a report in 1940 that called the tradition “outmoded,” “peculiar” and a source of “excitement for a people who dwell in an environment of low stimulation.” The only way to convince this “disadvantaged culture group” to stop burning the woods, Shea wrote, was to recruit agencies to immerse themselves in Southern communities and convince them to abandon the practice.
The halt in burning altered local biological diversity. Quail, a native species in the region, began to disappear, as did longleaf pine trees.
“People around here knew that, in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem and land that you could farm on, you needed fire,” said Melvin, the Georgia forest manger.
Many foresters and conservationists didn’t embrace prescribed burning until the 1970s, and nearly half a century later, federal agencies still trail state entities and private landowners in the Southeast. In California, where seven federal agencies are responsible for managing nearly half of the state’s 100-plus million acres, the National Interagency Fire Council found that fire was set to only 70,000 acres in 2018.
“We’re not using the evidence we have to inform our management, and that has led to more destructive wildfires like Paradise,” said Kolden, whose study is one of the first to quantify modern-day prescribed fire rates nationwide.
In Georgia, where just 5% of the state’s land is federally owned, roughly 1.4 million acres were intentionally burned in 2018. Private residents and landowners, largely driven by the profit that logging and farming can generate, carried out about 80% of that burning, according to the state’s forestry commission.
Residents across the Southeast are more accustomed to prescribed burning and have a higher tolerance for the practice than most of their Western counterparts, Kolden found. As a result, fire managers in the West encounter more barriers to prescribed burning, which isn’t incentivized by policies or embraced by communities who are often too familiar with the devastation fire can bring.
The disparity in burning between states also exists because each ecosystem requires its own management approaches. While Georgia’s longleaf pines need fire once every few years to burn away brush, research has shown that many of California’s forests need fire just once every few decades. But since California’s public and private landowners have rarely burned and favored suppression over the past century, much of the state’s forestland is overrun by underbrush that damages natural landscapes and heightens wildfire risks.
According to the Forest Service, some places in the U.S. have missed so many fire cycles that the agency will have to use logging and other forest thinning tactics before using controlled burns. “Otherwise, fires will not burn in a healthy, productive manner,” said the Forest Service’s acting assistant director Romero.
Climate change is worsening the risks from all that built up fuel. Heat trapped by fossil fuel and other pollution is melting snowpacks earlier and drying out trees, shrubs and grasses, making wildfires burn hotter, faster and more frequently. Researchers found that between 1984 and 2015, human-caused climate change contributed to fires consuming nearly twice as much land in Western forests than expected. Even in states where prescribed burning is common, deadly fires persist. In 2016, wildfires scorched nearly 300,000 acres of land across the Southeast. The fire in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg, Tennessee claimed 14 lives that fall.
Three firefighters from Georgia called to help fight fires across the Pacific Northwest in the last few years said they were shocked when they saw the conditions. “Damn, why aren’t they burning?” Ken Parker of the Georgia Forestry Commission remembers saying to himself when he was out West. “After all, if we don’t burn it, nature will burn it.”
‘The stakes are too high’
Around 11 a.m. on a cloudless Thursday morning in early March, about a dozen biologists, firefighters and burn enthusiasts circled up at the top of a cliff overlooking Sprewell Bluff Wildlife Management Area, a 1,400-acre nature reserve along the Flint River in west Georgia. The crew, mostly in their 20s and 30s, were dressed in ash-covered button-down flannels and flame-resistant cargo pants. They flipped through a packet of maps and weather forecasts as their burn leader, Nathan Klaus, a senior wildlife biologist for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, doled out instructions.
That afternoon, they burned an 1,100-acre blaze in a longleaf pine forest, killing off the last layers of tree litter. A helicopter dropped pellets of flammable potassium permanganate from the sky — ping-pong balls filled with antifreeze, as Klaus put it — igniting the brush below after they hit the ground.
The heat of the fire killed the tops of budding oak trees that would otherwise have towered over the longleaf pine and suffocated shorter species home to wildlife like the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The fire also evoked a chemical response in the soil to facilitate more growth, and the high temperatures spurred the pine cones to seed.
When Klaus first scorched the same forest about 17 years ago, Georgia Power owned the land. After multiple deals with the utility company and surrounding landowners, the state owns the property. Building partnerships like this between agencies and landowners, and cultivating a bench of volunteers to assist with burns, is critical to successfully managing the land.
“This is a milestone. It’s pretty cool,” Klaus said. “That old growth is out of the woods. It’s probably never — hopefully never — going to go without fire again, and it certainly won’t be at the risk that it was for a wildfire.”
Fire ecologists and public health specialists wonder if prescribed burning is worth the potential public health threats. Sheryl Magzamen, an epidemiologist at Colorado State University, has spent the better part of the last few years examining how wildfires drive emergency room visits, but prescribed burns have proven trickier to study.
“The events aren’t extreme, so you’re not going to see people flooding to emergency rooms for smoke exposure,” Magzamen said.
Government agencies are also looking into the issue. Wayne Cascio, who directs the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Health and Environmental Effects Laboratory in North Carolina, said these types of conversations are “important,” and is allocating time to mull how the agency might help further the research.
Prescribed burns produce less smoke than wildfires, Cascio said. They can be coordinated so that residents are indoors when the smoke hits, and managed to reduce the risk of toxic smoke being sucked into water pipes, which happened during California’s Paradise Fire last year. Some who burn frequently say they experience heavy bouts of coughing. Some who burn frequently say they experience heavy bouts of coughing. Parker’s doctor X-Rays his lungs each year to track the impact. “I haven’t smoked a day in my life, but my lungs are toasted,” he said. Though he says he rebounds within weeks after the fires, research on the long-term health effects of prescribed burns is still nascent.
“It’s a logical conclusion to come to that health effects would be on a much smaller scale in a prescribed burn compared to a wildfire,” Cascio said. “But, I would really like to see us be able to get some research done in the area.”
In the last two years, federal funding for fire-related research through the Joint Fire Science Program has dropped, and the administration’s current budget proposal suggests defunding the initiative altogether.
“The program is pretty much on life support,” said Courtney Schultz, who directs a natural resource policy group at Colorado State University. At the end of April, she penned a letter to Congress asking them not to cut the program. Thousands of scientists signed on.
“We’re seeing fire behavior we haven’t seen before under climatic conditions we haven’t seen before, and we need to understand this better now more than ever,” Schultz said. “There needs to be strategic thinking from the federal government about how we set ourselves up for success. The stakes are too high.”
She added that Congress could conduct oversight hearings, for example, to identify roadblocks preventing agencies and regions from prescribed burning and help them take a more proactive approach to land management. Many scientists applauded Congress’ decision last April to redesign Forest Service funding so that firefighting doesn’t consume all of its budget, and are eager to work off this momentum.
As federal agencies grapple with how to align policies and systems to reflect the now century-old consensus around the importance of prescribed burns in land management, Georgia and its Southeastern neighbors continue to hone their craft.
About three hours into the burn at Sprewell Bluff, fire crew member Kori Ogletree hopped onto the bed of a pickup truck and looked out at the sea of hot orange flames. A graduate student studying biology at Georgia College, Ogletree has lit more fires than she can count since she started working with Klaus two years ago.
Like many Georgians, she grew up watching billows of smoke emerge from prescribed burns on neighboring properties, which normalized smoke and fire. She finds the practice addicting and empowering.
“You’re not quite playing your hand with God,” Ogletree said. “But you’re helping an ecosystem that your previous ancestors kind of helped destroy.”
Clarification: This story was updated with additional information about health impacts from smoke while managing prescribed burns.
Samantha Max reports on health and inequity for The Telegraph in Macon, Georgia. She is a corps member for Report for America. Follow her on Twitter.