Campbell Vaughn: Wildfires can be good, bad for ecosystem

FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS A wildfire smolders after a controlled burn on a hillside in Clayton, Ga., in mid-November.

After the devastating fires in the mountains of North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, I wanted to explore some of the effects in the ecosystems around these huge masses of forested lands. It is devastating anytime there is a loss of life and loss of property from a tragedy such as these wildfires.


What I want to know is why the fires happened the way they did, how they could have been minimized, and what the long-term effect on the ecosystems will be. During one of the peak times, there were 73 active fires and well over 100,000 acres burned. Most of the land burned was National Forest lands.


Lightning fires are nature’s way of land management. The natural fire cycle works as the land is primed for burning by accumulating some type of fuel on the ground. Fuel is material that will cause a fire to burn more intensely. In the Midwest, miles of dried natural grasses are a great source of fuel. In the Southeast, we are naturally forested, so our fuel for fire is what trees shed. Pine needles and leaves dropping annually from deciduous trees would make up our catalyst for burning. When the fuel is dry and the humidity is low, a spark from a lightning strike will easily cause a fire. The fire will run unencumbered until it hits a wet area, the rains come, or it runs out of fuel.

Remarkably, fire is an awesome way to rejuvenate the land. The natural land was created to be symbiotic. In other words, one naturally occurring event should in some way be a benefit (although the dinosaurs may disagree). Fire is good and if used correctly, can reduce heavily mulched understory of trees and allow annual grasses and forbs to sprout and grow. These grasses and flowering plants create a habitat for wildlife that helps to diversify these ecosystems.

So what went wrong north of us? It was essentially the perfect storm for an out of control fire.

These forests were in a record drought and have not been managed with controlled burns for many years. Decades of leaf matter dried for months and with no rain made it easy for a match to get a fire going in a hurry. The dry thick fuel matter made it too hot to control. The lack of rain and low humidity kept the fire roaring. Strong winds made the fire spread rapidly.

I called my forester friend, Bryan Ashe, who owns Forest Management Services and asked for his thoughts on the long-term effects of these wildfires and what could prevent this from happening again. He referred to Native American history to best explain what happens to the land and how best to handle fires in the wild. He said that Indians would regularly burn tracts of land to keep the understory clean for easier movement. Wearing a loin cloth in a blackberry patch isn’t ideal, so they regularly lit fires to control the environment they traveled and hunted. After the fires extinguished, native annual grasses and forbs start to pop out and the wildlife begin to feed again. Then the Indians would hunt. These frequent burns kept fuels to a minimum and wildfires scarce.

Current forest management programs recommend burning for pine forest (particularly longleaf) but not for hardwoods. I wanted to know the effects of burning on these strands of trees since the mountain areas have such large amounts of hardwoods. Ashe said hardwood trees can take some burning in the winter but it is not ideal. A slow-moving, cooler fire that isn’t more than a couple of inches high can be beneficial, but these intense heavily fueled fires can hurt mature hardwoods with thinner bark and kill them back to the ground.

Most likely, the intensity of the fires north of us will have some serious impacts on these hardwood forests. This will probably also lead to a more open forest allowing for a new flora growing in the understory. Will these problem fires persist? Arsonists are hard to stop, but if there is less fuel for the wildfire then the chances of the fires becoming uncontrollable diminish. The Forestry Service needs to have the resources and regulations allowing for controlled burning or else these uncontrolled fires could persist for years to come.

Reach Campbell Vaughn, the agriculture and natural resources cooperative extension agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing



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