ALBANY – Visitors and transplants to southwest Georgia frequently find our habits and traditions in sharp contrast with their concepts of normality. The fact that we have fire crews scrambling to set fires instead of extinguishing them generally gets their dander up. However, in the southwest Georgia region, the smell of burnt pine straw and large white plumes of smoke rising in any direction on the horizon are a sure indication that spring is here.
The Longleaf pine wiregrass ecosystem of the Southeastern United Sates was first described by Hernando DeSoto in the early 1500s. At the time, an almost unbroken forest of Longleaf pines ran from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. Although only about a quarter of that forest exists today, it remains one of the most diverse biosystems in North America.
“It includes many rare and unique animal and plant species that are dependent upon periodic fire for their survival,” explained Jessica McGuire, Working Lands for Wildlife coordinator for Bobwhite Quail Forever. “The gopher tortoise, indigo snake and pitcher plants are just a few of these fire dependent species.
“Fire has shaped this region. A Longleaf pine forest cannot survive being overtaken by oaks without routine exposure to fire. Oak trees will invade and create a canopy blocking sunlight from the ground, preventing the growth of necessary grasses and ground cover which equates to groceries for deer, turkey, tortoise and quail.”
Thousands of years ago, fires caused by lightening strikes kept the forest in balance. Native Americans living here observed the abundance of wildlife and forage plants following these wildfires. Archaeological and early historical records indicate they routinely used fire as a tool to manage and maintain the Longleaf pine ecosystem they were dependent upon.
“In the Southeast that’s the way fire worked,” McGuire said. “There were huge fires sweeping across the landscape, but they were fast and that allowed spots of ground cover to be left, providing refuge for animals and allowing plants to continue to bloom. It really cleaned the landscape.”
The use of fire as a forestry and game management tool in the Southeastern United States is one of the primary reasons the region is not ravaged by the rampant wildfires experienced annually in the Western parts of the nation.
“Part of the problem there is they suppressed fires for a long time, and now the conditions are just right for the wildfires we are seeing,” McGuire said. “In many ways, the frequency of these wildfires continually breaking out in the same locations are an indication of how common wildfires are in these ecosystems.”
If these areas go too long without fire, leaves, fallen branches and dead vegetation build up a layer of fuel that will burn in an uncontrollable manner once it is ignited. These fires differ in many ways from the “controlled” or “prescribed” burns currently running through the Pine savannas of the Southeast.
A prescribed burn is just that. Like a pharmaceutical prescription, it is designed to only burn a specific area, at a specific time, generating a specific result. What strikes many first-time observers as a bunch of good ole boys and gals spreading fire and throwing caution to the wind is actually a highly choreographed, fine-tuned, science-based operation.
Decades ago, control burns were conducted by individuals who were attuned to the subtleties of nature and used their perceptions and personal experience with weather and fire to determine when and how to burn.
Today, the fire boss and members of fire crews operate in a more scientific manner, measuring accumulated fuels, humidity levels, weather patterns and a variety of other variables to create a fire plan that will achieve the desired results for the plot they will be burning.
Not all fires are created equal. Some need to burn low and slow; others need to run hot and fast. All need to be contained in the area they are targeting. Smoke density and flow are taken into consideration, as well as the impact all this might have on nearby inhabitants. A fire burning into the wind behaves far differently than a fire burning with the wind. A fire burning uphill behaves differently than a fire burning downhill. Many small strip fires will achieve a different result than a single fire running over a large tract.
“We used to burn in the evening, looking for a good cool burn,” McGuire said. “Today, it is really hard to get special permission for a night burn.”
These changes are associated with a better understanding of smoke behavior and an effort to mitigate it from hanging low to the ground instead of rapidly rising whenever possible.
Over decades messages delivered by Smokey Bear have created a cultural philosophy that all fire is bad. In response, the Longleaf Alliance, an organization dedicated to ensuring a sustainable future for the Longleaf pine ecosystem through partnerships, landowner assistance and science-based education and outreach, has created an alter ego, Burner Bob, “a cool dude with a hot message.”
Bob is a bobwhite quail who lives in the woods with other animal friends and has devoted his life to explaining to people that the Longleaf pine forest requires a healthy dose of regular fire. So if you don’t believe McGuire, Google Bob and hear what he has to say.