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Fire: A New Understanding

For thousands of years, American Indians used low-intensity fire in Southern Appalachian forests as a tool for hunting and improving the productivity of the land. Many native plants and animals benefitted from these fires.

European settlement brought new land uses to Southern Appalachian forests that eventually led to prevention and suppression of all wildland fires. Unfortunately, efforts to eliminate all fire from the forest changed vegetation patterns.

Forest Service scientists and other researchers also discovered that without periodic fires, dead trees, brush, leaves, and other combustible plant materials built up on the forest floor. This fuel build-up actually increased the size and intensity of wildfires. They urged a new science-based approach to managing forests that includes both fire prevention and the periodic use of intentionally ignited, carefully controlled burns, or "prescribed fires." To see examples of fire-dependent ecosystems both with and without periodic fire, visit Smokey Bear: Nature's Housekeeper.

A scientist carefully controlling a forest fire

Today's forest managers use carefully planned and controlled "prescribed burns" for safety or forest improvement purposes. Sometimes prescribed fire is used to reduce undergrowth and other combustible material to prevent further destructive fires. Other important goals for prescribed fire include creating habitat for endangered species and restoring fire-dependent ecosystems.

While the careful use of prescribed fire can benefit the forest, unplanned and uncontrolled wildland fire can degrade ecosystems and endanger homes, lives, and property. Humans cause close to 90% of the wildland fires in the United States, either through carelessness or intentional arson. Many of these fires could be prevented if more people learned outdoor fire safety, especially with campfires and cigarette disposal.

As more homes and business are built in forested areas, people and their homes can become more endangered by wildfires. Those who live or work in or near forested areas can help protect their houses and buildings by making their property more fire-resistant. Local fire departments and agencies can offer guidance and assistance on what steps you can take for your situation. Visit Firewise Communities for more information.