By mid-afternoon, the team had seemingly painted fire onto the land, burning exactly where and what they wanted. The mature pines’ lower trunks were singed black, and the ground beneath them was charred and cleared of most of the tangled brush that had been there at the start of the day. Watching the team was like watching skilled artists at work — night and day from the chaotic infernos that usually make headlines.
“When you’re watching a successful controlled burn, it can be really boring,” says Landau. “That can really reduce the fear factor.”
The US Forest Service, created in large part to suppress fires, has begun to acknowledge that this policy was, in many instances, a deadly mistake — and a costly one. In recent years, the agency has had to devote most of its budget to fighting fires. To restore the natural balance and clear out trees that risk fueling megafires, the service has ramped up its prescribed burning program. Press releases ping out weekly announcements of burns up and down the Appalachians.
That’s a good step, but more is needed, says service ecologist Greg Nowacki. No national forest unit in the East is burned frequently enough to replicate its pre-European fire interval, he has found in his research. Many receive less than 10 percent of their historical fire.
“The Forest Service is not burning nearly as much as it should if you want to restore these oak-pine systems,” Nowacki says.
Many factors hinder getting more flames on the ground. In most of the US, fire is regulated by a complex bureaucracy whose top responsibility is to prevent loss of life and property, not manage ecosystems. Fires on public land must typically be overseen by qualified burn bosses, who require up to a decade’s worth of training and certifications. And fire can be costly: A large, complex burn can easily run into the thousands of dollars or more. (Landau points out that other tools for managing ecosystems, such as herbicide and mechanical thinning, can cost similar amounts and do environmental damage.)
Weather is another challenge. High winds, hot or dry air, excessive soil moisture, and snow can all scuttle a planned burn. Several times while reporting this story, I was poised to go to burns only to learn at the last minute that they had been called off due to an unexpected change in the weather.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also throttled fire. Pandemic restrictions went into effect just as the 2020 eastern fire season was entering full swing. In October, researchers analyzing satellite data for the southeastern US reported that fire declined by more than 20 percent from March to December 2020 compared to the same period during previous years. Given that most land management agencies are already stretched thin, making up the Covid-driven fire deficit will likely take years, says Ben Poulter, a NASA researcher and coauthor of the paper.
Another impediment is a lack of knowledge. In many places where fire exclusion has long been the norm, few people today are trained and qualified to burn. When Kirwan bought his property in 2001, for example, he did not know how to burn it. In recent years, he lobbied the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the nearby Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and the state of Maryland to burn his marsh, as they had done in the past, but “they never seemed to be able to get around to it, ”he says.