Forests & Fires - Perfect Together However?

By: Bob Williams
Posted on:10/22/2020 Updated:10/23/2020

As foresters and landowners in the forestry community, we are well aware of the impact of fires on our landscapes. Many of us actually use fire to provide conservation stewardship to forest ecosystems.

As foresters and landowners in the forestry community, we are well aware of the impact of fires on our landscapes. Many of us actually use fire to provide conservation stewardship to forest ecosystems. 


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Certified forester Robert Williams, of Pine Creek Forestry, watches the flames’ progression during a controlled burn Wednesday at Stockton University.

As we now see with the ongoing historical wildfire events across the United States, society needs to assess the way we are going to live with fire as opposed to continuing the long-term war on fire. 


The debate now rages that it's climate change that is causing these catastrophic wildfires while little consideration is given to the long-term benign neglect of our public forests and the condition that neglect has left our forests in. 

People must begin to understand and accept that fire in the forest is as natural as rain or sunshine, it's how we need fires to behave in the forest that has become a concern. 

Fire has helped forests evolve for thousands of years. Many people remain under the illusion that prior to European settlement, forests in North American were carpets of pristine old growth forests. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most forests were occupied and managed by Native Americans and fire was their primary tool by intentionally setting managed fires along with natural lightning fires. 

To what ends did American Indians use Fire? To any that could serve their purposes. They used fire as a technology — to harden spear points, to fire pottery, to chip stone, to light dwellings, to cook. They used it on the landscape in ways both tiny and huge. With torches they could clean ground to better collect acorns and chestnuts; they smoked bear and raccoons out of dens; they attacked enemy encampments; they cleared trails; they stimulated edible tubers (such as camas); they pruned and promoted berry patches; they fired dense woods to create accessible firewood. With torches they fished at night. By burning around wetlands, they encouraged habitat favorable to ducks and muskrats. By selective firing in sedge and shrubs, they promoted thatch and twigs suitable for baskets. With smoke they could attract deer and elk driven mad by flies. By burning, they kept lands around settlements and houses open, which prevented ambush by foes or predators and shielded them from wildfire. A land unburnt was a land uncared for — a land that was uninhabitable. * 

The most spectacular use, however, involved fire hunting. The ecology behind it involves both a push and a pull. By setting fires and letting them run with winds, hunters could drive animals into sites where they could be harvested; those burns in turn, freshened browse and grass that, when greened, attracted more game animals and allowed more specialized hunting. Done properly, the fire hunt was indefinitely renewable. * 


Bob watches the progression of the fire during the controlled burn in the forest of Stockton University

There were patterns to the practice. A simple way to imagine the outcome is to think of lines of fire and fields of fire — "lines" referring to routes of travel, and "fields," to those sites where burning was routinely practiced to promote foraging, hunting, and fishing. Thus, people burned along corridors of seasonal movement, they burned both deliberately and accidentally, and as they moved through the landscape, they burned the same patches, each in its proper season. Typically, sites in a condition to burn were burned: they were burned early, often, and lightly. But people did not always return with exact regularity, and fires did not always stay in place. In this way the burning varied, year to year. Besides, a good deal of fire "littering" occurred—fires left on the land in normal years burned themselves out, but in droughty years they could bolt across the scene. How these general patterns expressed themselves varied with the particular biota and setting in which they occurred. Common techniques applied in tall-grass prairie could result, for example, in very different outcomes when used in boreal forest. * 


Since human fire interacted with everything else in the landscape, as the landscape and its species changed, so did fire. Of particular interest is the disposition of animals that competed with fire for fine fuels, like grasses and shrubs. In the post-Pleistocene era, the extinction of large mammals led to two opposing outcomes. In fire-prone places, their disappearance allowed fuels to build up, thus furthering humanity's firepower. But in fire-intolerant places, the loss of animals that had kept a landscape open might make fire more difficult: it might cause the tree canopy to close in and shut down the conditions for fire. In America both trends happened until Europeans introduced domestic animals — horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and swine — that reversed the process. * 

I'm not suggesting we can go back to the methods that Native Americans utilized to sustain their forested lands to begin to address our concerns, but we can learn much from them. Mitigating the damages resulting from uncontrolled massive wildfire is going to take many years and complex solutions. We didn't get here over night but by decades of poor land management decisions, policies, and government regulation. 

In large part, the argument now rages between those that simply blame climate change and continue to call for a hands off preservation land use policy and those that claim slogans such as "Log It or Lose It" solutions. 

Neither proposal will work. It's going to take an integrated approach that looks back at the natural historical role of fire and integrate that with some of the great research and science developed by some of our best forest scientists. 

It appears clear to many that the past forty years of a hands off preservationist policy that discourages active conservation stewardship on the land, has lead to forests overstocking themselves resulting in an unnatural buildup of fire fuels in both quantity and structure. This has resulted in increased size and intensity of forest fires. Politicians have accepted the premise of mother nature knows best thus "leave it alone". This thinking has resulted in disastrous results. 

Additionally, we have permitted construction of homes, businesses, and infrastructure in fire prone landscapes only exasperating the overall fire problem. 

As to climate change issues, our forests should be a major component of solving that problem. They should be carbon sinks that help naturally remove CO2 from our atmosphere. Instead they have become at risk to be a major source of release of carbon both from the smoke from active fires then from the release of carbon from the rotting of dead trees left behind. 

Even more concerning is the release of carbon from some forests supported by organic soils — carbon that has been stored for thousands of years in those soils. 

The continued benign neglect of a large portion of our public and private forest lands will only lead to more intense and larger fires. Not only does this neglect contribute to the wildfire crisis there is also a direct link to the loss of many plant and animal species. Biodiversity decline is only worsened with this hands-off policy. Species loss in most public lands is not from development or land conversions -- it is a result of failed land management policies and the lack of fire. 

Forest science has provided us the technology to begin to address these wildfire concerns. There is no magic bullet or one size fits all, but there is plenty of evidence to support the need to begin to provide the needed conservation stewardship for the greatest diversity of species. An integrated approach of prescribed fire and forest management by tree removal methods is badly needed and critical to success. This approach will reduce forest densities, re-arrange fuel structures and volume, while restoring optimum biodiversity habitat structure and diversity. 

Pinelands National Reserve in Southern New Jersey

Here in southern New Jersey, we use fire to reduce concerns for wildfire while also sustaining the ecological integrity of forests. However, both here and in many of our forests throughout American, the forest is simply too overgrown to apply prescribed fire thus tree removal is required. In many areas, we simply cannot burn our way out of the crisis. We must integrate planned tree and timber harvesting. Of course, harvesting trees is the activity that has caused many special interests to block forest management by any means politically and socially. This has resulted in a dramatic decline in active forest management on most public lands over the last more than fifty years. 

The good news is we have many excellent examples of integrated burning and thinning that has resulted in restored forest ecosystems that are aesthetically beautiful, more resilient to fire and insects, and more biologically diverse than the neglected lands nearby. One can visit the beautiful restoration of Ponderosa Pine systems in Arizona, Oregon and Washington, the beautiful conifer forests in the mountains of California, the beautiful restoral long leaf pine forests of Florida and Georgia and the beautiful restored pitch and shortleaf pine forests of the Pinelands National Reserve in Southern New Jersey — its all there for people to see for themselves. 

It is unfortunate that the work done is only a drop in the bucket as to the scale of things that needs to be done in all regions. 

The use of fire has its limitations thus mechanical removal or treatment of trees remains an essential tool. Many areas are too close to homes or infrastructure and smoke becomes a real problem. Smoke issues are a primary limitation of prescribed or controlled fire application. Getting the right weather conditions on a given day to allow for the intentional setting of a fire is very limited and difficult. There are also ecological concerns at times. Allowing a fire to destroy a seed bank or burn into the turf can have devasting impacts to some ecosystems. The bottom line is that this is all complex. But we need to get on with what we know works. 

The management of many of our forests requires an understanding of the fire ecology of those forests. When we speak of the needed management of forests it needs to be understood that it is not possible technically or physically as well as economically to apply management to all our conserved forest lands. Thus, nature will continue to be a partner in our forest management strategies. 

We can collaborate with Mother Nature in a way that protects our needs from the forest as well as our towns, villages, and recreational uses. We can manage our forest on a landscape level to better direct how wildfires behave and what they do or don't impact. It's essential we learn how to live with fire as the Native Americans did for thousands of years. The Native Americans clearly understood they were an integral part of the forest system not invaders. We too must begin to understand we have influenced the forest and we too are part of the forest system — not invaders. We need each other to sustain each other. 

None of this will be easy. Much of the restoration work requires the removal of small diameter trees with no markets for this wood. Our new vision for forest and fire policy will need to consider the economic and tax policies that can make the needed work economically feasible. Utilizing wood fiber for renewable energy may be one of the key players in the needed forest restoration and management program. Biomass, small diameter timber, pulpwood, and wood chips all will play a role. 

Here is southern New Jersey between the great cities of New York and Philadelphia we have a fire culture on the land. Family forest landowners along with state fire wardens burn forests annually without concern or problem. It can be done — come see for yourselves. 

Robert R. Williams 
Certified Forester 
Pine Creek Forestry 

*Pyne, Stephen A, 2010. America's Fires: A Historical Context for Policy and Practice. Durham, NC: Forest History Society, pages 3, 4 & 5.