The earliest European settlers to North America recorded indigenous peoples’ use of fire for clearing land, hunting and gathering activities, and in warfare. However, post-Columbus settlers did not understand fire as a natural process, and sought to suppress fire wherever it occurred because wildfires destroyed their crops, homes, and trees they needed for homes. In addition, the huge increase in human traffic brought on by late 19th Century immigration brought new human activity to these areas, meaning more human ignition sources were introduced to previously sparsely populated areas. This created one of the most devastating wildfire periods in American history – the great fires of the 1880’s.
The number and intensity of wildfires in this decade were so vast, scientist Stephen Pyne referred to it as, “The Great Barbecue.” The Great Peshtigo fire occurred on October 8, 1871 (same night as the Chicago Fire) and raged throughout Northeastern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. This fire destroyed the town of Peshtigo, killing between 1200 and 2500 people and burning more than 1.2 million acres. Many other huge wildfires occurred, caused by both lightning and humans. Because people wanted their lives and property to be protected, putting out wildfires of any cause became the norm.
As early as the 1930’s, and even before, land managers in the southeastern United States began arguing for the return of more natural fire regimes. Other fire-dependent areas were equally in need of fire, but had few advocates. While few could argue, then or now, that the suppression and prevention of extreme fire was not appropriate, few were arguing that the focus should be on maintenance of natural fire occurrences. The Yellowstone fires of 1988 and the fire season of 2000 began to shift public perspective and opened a revised chapter in wildland fire history. Ecosystems that were once dependent on fire to thin the forest canopy and cultivate the forest floor have been transformed, while sunlight-dependent native plant species have been overtaken by those that like shade.
The net effect is that fire suppressed ecosystems become less diverse, denser with overgrowth, and littered with dead plant material. By reintroducing fire into fire dependent ecosystems in a controlled setting, we can recreate the effects of natural fire, give balance back to fire-dependent communities, and prevent the catastrophic losses of uncontrolled, unwanted wildfire. Fire teams can use controlled burns/prescribed fires when and where doing so will safely reduce the amount of fuel for fires. Fire teams can also decide to allow fires caused by lightning to continue to burn in areas that will not affect the safety of people while reducing fuels. In certain fire dependent ecosystems, periodic fire normally burns off ground litter (needles, leaves, dead wood) and maintains native plant species, many of which depend upon fire for their livelihood.
Is Smokey wrong? – No.
Remember Smokey’s ABCs: Always Be Careful with fire. Smokey wants people to be responsible when they use fire. Fire has many uses, and Smokey wants you to be trained in the proper ways to use fire. It is still wrong and irresponsible to play with matches, leave fires unattended, throw lighted cigarettes away, or use equipment without proper spark arrestors. Mother Nature always knows best and in spite of our best efforts she will prevail and the forests will burn with or without our help. Let Nature take its course and help support more housekeeping fires under controlled conditions to reduce the risk of a catastrophic wildfire in your backyard. For more information about controlled housekeeping fires contact your local Georgia Forestry Commission office, local US Forest Service office or Frank Riley, Executive Director, Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D Council at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Article reprinted with permission from Smokey Bear!