By Erick Brown
The view from The Nature Conservancy’s office on the 22nd floor of the Equitable Building in Downtown Atlanta is pretty spectacular. Most days, we can see Kennesaw Mountain off in the distance. But over the past few weeks, that view has often been obscured, the slope of that Civil War battle site hidden behind a dull cover of smoke.
I’m no stranger to smoke. In my role as fire manager for The Nature Conservancy, I spend most of my time working with teams of highly trained fire workers, leading controlled burns across the state and training new fire practitioners.
That haze on the horizon and smell of char in the air wasn’t from one of our carefully planned fires – it was evidence of the wildfires, burning for weeks in the forests of Georgia and neighboring states. Local news reports indicate that smoke is causing an increase in hospital visits for respiratory issues, and children are being kept indoors during recess. In other places like Tennessee, the fires have become catastrophic.
The fire community has been working very, very long hard days, trying to contain these wildfires, which are directly related to the record-setting stretch of days without rain. It is predicted that extreme weather events like this drought are going to be more frequent and more severe as our climate changes – which means the frequency and severity of wildfires will only increase.
There is no one, easy answer. But as an ecologist and fire practitioner, I know this for sure: many forests need fire as much as they need rain and sunshine to be healthy. Periodic fire, historically caused by lightning and prehistoric indigenous peoples, is a natural process. But in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, in response to damaging wildfires, landowners largely embraced a culture of fire suppression.
While that approach might seem logical – and suppression is certainly the only choice as fire nears communities – letting natural areas burn is an important part of reducing damage and risk in the future. The controlled burns managed by The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, private landowners and many others are intended to mimic natural processes and burn away the fuel on the ground so that when a wildfire occurs, suppression to protect communities is more effective.
What we have experienced this fall was a state of emergency. A history of fire suppression along with the autumnal leaf fall means there is an excess of plant fuel on the ground. Drought conditions have dried up everything so that there’s no moisture to stop a fire if it sparks. As a result, the fires in north Georgia and beyond are burning hot and long. And it’s going to take quite some time and an awful lot of resources to get things under control and for communities to recover from the damage done.
But as for the forests, these fires will mostly be a good thing. Next spring, they will be awash with vibrant new growth, and I’m especially interested to compare the impacts of the wildfires in areas that were recently burned on purpose for ecological management to areas that have not burned in decades.
Investments in forest management, including controlled burning are easy to cut from state and federal budgets, and funds to support those efforts are difficult for non-profits like The Nature Conservancy to raise. Planning ahead for a disaster can be labeled as alarmist, and we can convince ourselves that putting off preventive measures is worth the risk. But as someone who puts my life on the line, and watches so many others do the same, and for everyone who found themselves struggling to breathe, or worse yet—for the families who had to evacuate or lost their homes and businesses – let’s remember that smaller investments now can prevent tragedy and greater costs in the future. And as someone who spends an awful lot of time outdoors and understands how healthy forests are tied to healthy freshwater, how native animals that define our culture rely on connected woodlands to thrive – I know that a commitment to strong forest management can have so many positive implications for human and natural communities.
Watch a time-lapse video of a controlled burn at Moody Forest Natural Area, a preserve near Baxley that is co-owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.