Last year was Georgia's worst forest fire season since the 1950s, and an expert said conditions won't get better unless landowners and foresters do more burning on their own.
The best way to prevent huge forest fires is to use prescribed burning, something Georgia landowners have gotten away from recently, said Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, a Valdosta State University assistant professor who reads tree rings the way some people read novels.
"They are aware of the problem, but complacence has set in," he said. "You take for granted that your forest is not going to catch fire."
More than 80 acres of brush in south Augusta burned June 30 after water restrictions and a lack of rain dried out the area's land, making it susceptible to easily sparked fires.
Fire officials believe a car driving along Bobby Jones Expressway giving off sparks from a minor malfunction likely started the separate fires along the highway. The fires damaged lawns, cars and sheds.
The Georgia Forestry Commission ranks the area's dryness using an index that ranges from zero to 800. Normally, the Augusta area rates 200 to 400, but at the time of the fires, it reached more than 700.
Small, controlled fires eliminate shrubs, grasses and other vegetation that can fuel catastrophic blazes. Prescribed burning removes this fuel naturally the way nature -- with lightning strikes -- has for thousands of years.
But now, firefighters often extinguish lightning-sparked fires before they get a chance to burn much vegetation.
The fiscal year that ended July 1 was the worst for wildfires in Georgia in 45 years, with 6,579 fires burning 56,666 acres of trees. Much of that damage came in late spring and early summer when the state was in a three-month drought.
In addition to threatening lives, homes and businesses, wildfires harm Georgia's largest industry -- forestry, which generates $19.5 billion in revenues and provides 177,000 jobs.
North Florida, which has forests similar to south Georgia's, also needs more prescribed burning, Mr. Grissino-Mayer said. Wildfires burned nearly 500,000 acres in north Florida this summer, causing $276 million in damage.
Mr. Grissino-Mayer analyzes tree rings to determine when climatic changes and natural disasters occurred.
"Trees are nature's ultimate recorders," said Mr. Grissino-Mayer, who has tree samples dating back more than 1,000 years. "As a tree-ring scientist, we read the language of trees -- volcanos, earthquakes, floods, droughts, insects and fires."
People often are reluctant to burn woodlands on purpose, Mr. Grissino-Mayer said.
"Smokey the Bear did his job too well," he said.
Wesley Wells, the Georgia Forestry Commission's fire protection chief, said the commission is aware of the need for more prescribed burning and plans to promote it more aggressively this year.
"We used to do a lot of prescribed burning. People got away from it and quit doing it, and now it's catching up with us," Mr. Wells said, noting that the average size of Georgia wildfires increased from 3.5 acres during the past five years to nearly 5.6 acres this year.
The Smokey Bear campaign put a big dent in prescribed burning, said Rob Routhier, a forester with F&W Forestry Services Inc. of Albany, Ga.
"It was perceived that all burning was bad," Mr. Routhier said. "We try to make a special effort to say wildfire is bad, but prescribed burning ... is one of the best and most cost-effective management tools for private landowners."
Prescribed burning improves wildlife habitat, recycles nutrients and carpets the forest floor with green plants the following year.
However, prescribed burns raise liability issues if a fire burns someone else's property or the smoke causes an auto accident, Mr. Grissino-Mayer said.
"But the benefits outweigh the disadvantages," he said. "Fire has been a part of these forests for hundreds and thousands of years. Instead of fighting nature, we need to work with nature, and that means burn the forest the way nature does."
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