Only You Can Prevent Mega Fires

Controlled fire on Summers Mountain in Highland County. Photo credit: Virginia Mercury

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s environmentalists seem determined to out-California California when it comes to fighting global warming and pushing for a zero-carbon economy. But they do seem unlikely to repeat the colossal error that has made the Golden State a cauldron of forest fire infernos. Rather than let understory vegetation grow out of control, Virginia foresters have been practicing “controlled burning” — a practice that is written about approvingly in The Virginia Mercury, which reflects the thinking of the bien pensants in Virginia’s environmental community.

Virginia has many advantages over California when it comes to combating forest fires. We get more rain, and we have fewer and shallower droughts. But our biggest advantage may be that our environmentalists are not insane. Excessively fixated upon climate change, perhaps, but not totally disconnected from reality.

Forest fires were part of the ecology of Southern Appalachian forests before the Europeans arrived, writes the Mercury’s Sarah Vogelsong. Indigenous peoples set fires to clear out the understory, leaving fewer, bigger trees and more room for wildlife to roam. Once upon a time, Virginia had herds of native bison and elk. When Europeans settled the state, they cleared woodlands to create farms. Then industrial-revolution demand for wood for construction and home heating led to wholesale deforestation. Horrified by the resulting barrenness and sterility, Congress set up the U.S. Forest Service to rebuild the nation’s forests; one of its primary duties was to help fight forest fires.

Under the fire-suppression regime, a new problem emerged. The Mercury explains:

“Forest density and canopy closure have increased to the point that fire-favored trees, especially oaks and pines, are failing to reproduce and are being replaced,” the U.S. Forest Service’s 2017 report found. “These genera are important for wildlife habitat, timber and aesthetics.” But as the older generation of big trees dies out, “they are being replaced by … species such as red maple that have colonized the shaded forest understory in the absence of fire.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the U.S. Forest Service began realizing that fire had played an important selective function in the forests of yore. Oaks and other hardwoods that had once dominated southeastern forests were beginning to fade away as other younger trees blocked sunlight and prevented them from regenerating.

Preserving habitat and combating invasive species is a cause that environmentalists can rally around. So, in contrast to California where environmental groups such as the Sierra Club sued and lobbied to block the practice, Virginia environmentalists saw virtue — over and above preventing mega-fires — in understory burning. For the past 10 or 12 years, the Department of Forestry has conducted 22 burns covering more than 6,000 acres annually on average.

State foresters have the backing of landowners, Virginia Tech scientists and — critically — collaborative environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy. The California mentality of blocking human intervention in forest management never took hold. Virginia’s adversarial environmental organizations have focused mainly on shutting down coal plants, blocking gas pipelines, boosting renewable energy sources and shifting the automobile fleet to electric cars. They never made an issue of understory burning.

The controlled burns are highly choreographed and utilize new technology like drones that drop so-called “dragon eggs” to ignite the fires safely. Virginia has more woodlands than any time in the past century, and its forests are less vulnerable to devastating, out-of-control forest fires. Hopefully, California-scale wildfires are one environmental problem we will never see here.

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9 responses to “Only You Can Prevent Mega Fires”

  1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    I agree periodic burning of forests is healthy and natural for the forests. In fact, the seeds of some plants and trees will germinate only when exposed to extreme heat. Furthermore, the bark on many trees is thick enough to withstand a forest fire. Controlled, man-made burns or monitoring of fires started by lightning strikes is wise management.

    I do take issue with your blaming California. The federal government owns and manages more than half of the forest land in California. The state owns only three percent, with the remainder in private ownership. So, the U.S. Forest Service, long dominated by its Smoky the Bear approach bears much of the blame, as well as environmentalists who long pushed for a hands off approach to the forests.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      The truth about California makes it a dull state. The fires were almost entirely on federally managed land that was ignored by the previous fella except when he lied about it being the governor’s fault. The northern LA cyn fires, Topanga and Malibu, were the exceptions.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    The National Forests in the East were mountainous land that had been clear-cut and rain was washing them into the rivers.

    The Forest Service acquired the land to rescue it.

    Most of the major cities in the east were built from timber in the eastern forests.

    Controlled burns are now policy but the idea that we could do it for all forests everywhere is not feasible. It’s done in forests that are closer to human developed property.

    For instance, the forests in Canada and in Russia are vast and many are wilderness and there are no proscribed burns. Those forests exist as they have for thousands of years, long before mankind appeared in number and started building permanent structures. Even today, when fires start in Canadian wilderness… they just burn until finished in most cases.

    It’s really a natural process that has gone on long before mankind started to occupy the forests.

    Controlled burns are primarily to proactively protect built infrastructure.

  3. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

    Reminds me, one or two years ago NoVA was blanketed by smoke for a few days. If I recall there were several “controlled” burns (military bases/state) that went awry and the atmospheric conditions allowed the smoke to hug the ground and blanket Fairfax Co. for some hours. Not too bad, on the other hand, that was probably a lethal dose of particulates – all of us are going to die – per today’s extremist feelings that a single particulate is death of a person. No safe level, period.

  4. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    The peat in the Dismal Swamp caught fire and burned for months. Okay, maybe just two. Filled the area with smoke smell for a long time.

    1. WayneS Avatar

      Peat Seeger?

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Forest Fires are a natural process that has been ongoing for thousands of years, long before man inhabited them.

      They are also affected by climate. If there is less rain and more drought – then more fires and more extensive fires.

      Our involvement is now to “manage” them so a to protect human-owned assets.

      And for some , to deny that changing climate can affect them and that what we are “supposed” to do is clean out the litter on the forest floor. Think about the level of effort and cost of doing this for all the forests. It would become the mother of all “Jobs” programs.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    One other thing about SouCal fires. Have you ever seen that place? It’s not Michigan. It’s harsh steep terrain covered in scrub, grasses, and more importantly, houses wherever they can find purchase in the sand.

    Control burn? Ha! Like a Texas refinery, or a London Underground wooden escalator, control burn.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      Yes. And the “scrub” is what keeps those hills from turning into mud slides when the rains do come.

      Not the verdant forests with “forest floor litter” that some visualize, but smaller very resinous trees like Pinyon Pines and Juniper Think of a cut Christmas tree going up in flames. People refer to it as P & J country.

      So the question is WHAT would we plant on those steep hills that simultaneously protects them from mud slides and erosion but will not turn into a massive conflagration during droughts?

      It’s not near so simple as some are claiming that proscribed burns will work.

      It’s similar to building homes in flood zones. You really can’t control the floods so the question becomes should you build there to start with.

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