By noon, the team appeared to have drawn fire on the land, burning exactly where and what they wanted. The lower trunks of the mature pines were charred black, the ground beneath them was charred, and most of the tangled bushes that were present at the start of the day were removed. Watching the team is like watching a skilled artist at work – day and night from the chaotic hell that usually makes headlines.
“When you watch a successful controlled burn, it can be very boring,” Landau said. “It really reduces the fear factor.”
The U.S. Forest Service, which is largely about fighting fires, has begun to admit that in many cases the policy was a fatal mistake and a costly one. In recent years, the agency has had to spend most of its budget on fighting fires. In an effort to restore natural balance and clear trees that could spark mega-fires, the service has enhanced its prescribed burn plan. The news release publishes weekly bulletins of burns up and down the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s a good step, but more is needed, says service ecologist Greg Nowacki. In his research, he found that no national forest unit in the East was burned with enough frequency to replicate its pre-European fire interval. Many received less than 10 percent of historical fires.
“If you want to restore these oak-pine systems, the Forest Service isn’t burning nearly as much as it should,” Nowacki said.
Many factors prevent more flames on the ground. In much of the United States, fires are managed by complex bureaucracies whose primary responsibility is preventing loss of life and property, not managing ecosystems. Fires on public lands often must be supervised by qualified burning bosses, who require up to ten years of training and certification. Fires can be costly: Large, complex burns can easily run into thousands of dollars or more. (Other tools for managing ecosystems, such as herbicides and mechanical dilution, could cost a similar amount and cause environmental damage, Landau noted.)
Weather is another challenge. High winds, hot or dry air, excess soil moisture, and snow can all ruin a planned burn. While reporting this story, I was prepared to burn several times, only to learn at the last minute that they were canceled due to an unexpected change in the weather.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also suppressed the fire. Just as the 2020 Eastern fire season is in full swing, pandemic restrictions kick in. In October, researchers analyzing satellite data from the southeastern U.S. reported more than 20 percent fewer fires between March and December 2020 compared to the same period in previous years. Given that most land management agencies are already stretched thin, closing the Covid-driven fire deficit could take years, said NASA researcher and co-author of the paper, Ben Poulter.
Another obstacle is lack of knowledge. In many places, fire prevention has long been the norm, and few people today are trained and qualified to burn. For example, when Kirwan bought his property in 2001, he didn’t know how to burn it. In recent years, he has lobbied the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and the state of Maryland to burn his swamp, as they have done in the past, but “they can never seem to get around it,” “He said.