Volume , Issue

INTRODUCTION

Since 2006, members of the WMS Environmental Council have endeavored to answer the question “If we have no wilderness, then why should there be a Wilderness Medical Society?” Through the years, members of the committee have encouraged local activism to protect the wilderness spaces we love. The motto has been “think global, act local.”

As climate change worsens, land protection is more relevant than ever. One of the most newsworthy aspects of climate change in the US is the increasing prevalence of wildfire destruction of public and private lands. In 2020 alone, arid land with an abundance of fuel, led to the destruction of more than five million acres in the US western states. For foresters and landowners practicing controlled burning, it was easy to see the flames coming. Since World War II, complete fire suppression has been a misguided cornerstone of public and private land protection. Instead of allowing non-threatening fires to consume excess fuel, fire suppression advocates endorsed extinguishing all wildfires, on all lands, at all times.

SMOKEY BEAR

In the Spring of 1942, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese submarines surfaced on California’s coast firing missiles at an oil field near the Los Padres National Forest. Americans became worried other incendiary bombings would occur and lead to disastrous wildfires. Since most able-bodied fire fighters were involved with the war effort, the US Forest Service organized a public service campaign to reduce human carelessness and accidental forest fires. In 1944 Smokey Bear was born. Smokey’s message became the iconic: “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

In a 2012 NPR series, fire historian Steven Pyne said Smokey’s message was so effective, the resulting overzealous fire suppression on public lands in effect contributes to massive wildfires instead of preventing them. We now know fire suppression leaves too much natural fuel on the ground. In light of recent trends, officials and experts have coalesced around the need to abandon longstanding policies requiring every fire be extinguished and to significantly increase the use of prescribed fire. In 2001, the US Forest Service recognized this problem and changed Smokey’s message regarding forest fires to: “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” The change in message is subtle, but it opens the door for intentional controlled burning (prescribed fire) of lands to dispose of excess fuels. 

WHAT IS PRESCRIBED FIRE?

A “prescribed fire” is the purposeful application of fire to achieve a specific vegetation management objective under a prescribed set of environmental circumstances, including season, wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity and smoke dispersal. We know prolonged exposure to particulate matter in smoke can have serious health effects. Burn managers understand this risk and live by the proverb “my fire, my smoke, my problem, wherever they go.” If planned correctly, proper dispersal conditions shift smoke from prescribed fire into the upper atmosphere where human impact is minimized. 

Burn managers employ three major smoke management strategies: avoidance, minimization, and dilution. Utilizing predicted wind direction to schedule a prescribed burn can help avoid smoke sensitive areas such as cities and towns. Burning after a light rain may reduce the amount of fuel consumed and thereby minimize the amount of smoke produced. One of the most important components of smoke control is the Dispersion Index. Calculations of weather conditions by the National Weather Service are converted into a numerical index to estimate the capacity of the atmosphere to dissolve and disperse smoke. Low index numbers mean poor dispersion and preclude prescribed burns. 

BENEFITS OF PRESCRIBED FIRE

In the Southeastern United States, landowners use prescribed fire to treat millions of acres every year, which experts have credited with sparing communities from the kind of devastation that has become tragically routine in California. 

For the past 15 years our family has employed prescribed fire and other forestry management techniques to enhance habitat for endangered species on our certified Alabama tree farm. Prescribed fire also protects structures on the property from wildfire. 

Safe fire perimeter created around Longleaf Lodge, Washington County, AL, 2018.
Photo by Lynn Yonge

When we purchased our land, we were not aware it included critical habitat for the endangered gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus). The gopher tortoise is considered a keystone species because the underground burrows it digs can provide shelter to more than 360 other species. Some of those cohabitating species are also considered endangered, such as the Eastern diamondback rattler.

Gopher tortoise moving toward burrow at Longleaf Farm, Washington County, AL, 2020
Photo by Lynn Yonge

Eastern diamondback rattler on fire managed property at Longleaf Farm, Washington County, AL, 2019
Photo by Lynn Yonge

Grasses are the gopher tortoise’s chief food source. Burning the land clears low understory trees and bushes and allows grasses to proliferate. Fire suppression practices, however, reduce sunlight on the forest floor, thereby shading out grasses and contributing to tortoise demise. Since we began burning, we’ve noticed an expansion of burrows from a densely inhabited open pasture area into freshly burned areas that now have more sunlight on the forest floor. Fire has created a diaspora that we hope will benefit reproduction rates of the existing gopher tortoise colony by increasing food security and allowing them to venture out and find new mates. 

Fire also benefits many other wildlife species. Recently we identified quail (bobwhites) coveys on our land, where they have been rarely seen before.

Wildflowers in open spaces benefit pollinators and quail after prescribed fire at Longleaf Farm, Washington County, AL. 2017
Photo by Lynn Yonge

Prescribed fire is arguably the single most effective and cost-efficient method of management for bobwhites. Quail need grasslands with plant diversity and bare soils for feather dusting. Fire helps produce this necessary environment. 

Doing the right thing with your own land can also be financially rewarding. The private American Forest Foundation, in partnership with the US Fish & Wildlife Service, recently awarded our farm a habitant improvement grant. These agencies, in collaboration with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and other state agencies, will provide technical assistance in a cost share program. The program’s goal is to enhance occupied and potential habitat for the gopher tortoise and to obtain additional information regarding gopher tortoise populations and habitat potential for future populations on private lands in south Alabama. 

DO IT YOURSELF

To conduct your own prescribed burns, you must be a Certified Burn Manager. In Alabama, burn manager certification costs $150 and can be accomplished with 32 hours of classroom and field training. Cost and classroom hours can vary slightly by state. Courses should include discussion of fire behavior, burning methods, safety, planning, smoke screening and applicable state fire laws.

Burn permits must be obtained prior to prescribed burning. Proper permitting ensures weather conditions are right to control the fire. In Alabama, properly securing a burn permit for your own property covers liability if fire escapes the prescribed burn area. Check your state guidelines.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, prescribed fire can be a useful tool for promoting habitat diversity and reducing the chance of wildfire in the US. Smoke is a known side effect of prescribed fires and can be an expected nuisance. When properly managed, however, prescribed fire reduces particulate matter in smoke to reduce harmful effects on human health. Whether or not you choose to be a landowner or a burn manager, you can be a voice to promote and accept prescribed fire in your area. The benefits are worthwhile for both humans and endangered species. Remember, think global, act local.

You Might Also Be Interested in


Mount Everest

Dr. Tatiana HavryliukJulie Ramirez8/26/2022

Who takes the trash out?


My Gear is Disrupting Your Endocrine System

Nate Hemmer, MD5/23/2022

Making Informed Choices for World and Health


Keeping Up With Climate Change

Jen Veldhuyzen, MD12/10/2021

Learning New Approaches to Infectious Diseases for an Expanding Tropical World


Beyond Penance

Jen Veldhuyzen, MD9/10/2021

Making Meaningful Choices when Carbon Offsetting Wilderness Expeditions