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How Prescribed Burns Can Help Restore Eastern US Forests

This story originally appeared on Yale Environment 360 and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It’s an apocalyptic scene that has become all too familiar in recent years. Columns of thick black smoke rise from the land, turning the piercing late winter sun an otherworldly orange. The acrid smell of burning grass and trees wafts on the wind as dry stalks and dead trunks crackle and pop.

By sunset on this cold February day, the flat, low-lying landscape on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has been charred black as far as the eye can see, with a few licks of flames still working their way through small trees and fence posts.But this is no climate change-fueled disaster. Quite the opposite: It’s an example of what ecologists call “good fire.” And Jeff Kirwan, whose 178-acre property we’re standing on, is thrilled by the flames ripping through his land. By clearing last year’s detritus, the fire will let sunlight hit the ground, stimulating marsh grasses to grow faster in the weeks ahead. Their roots will sequester carbon underground and, Kirwan hopes, build soil to keep the marsh above the surging water; sea level is rising faster here in the Chesapeake Bay region than almost anywhere on Earth.The fire will especially encourage a type of native marsh grass called three-square, whose roots muskrats like to eat. Muskrats, which feature prominently in Indigenous creation stories in this part of the world, have long been prized here for their meat and fur by Native and non-Native people alike.Kirwan, an emeritus professor of forestry at Virginia Tech, is one of those Native people. A member of the Nause Waiwash Band of Indians indigenous to the Eastern Shore and now headquartered in nearby Cambridge, he often returns to the shore in winter to set muskrat traps. And he remembers his father showing him marshes burning as a child. “He said, ‘This is something we learned from our Indian ancestors that we continue to do today,’” Kirwan recalls.Kirwan is far from the only one wanting to see more flames. A growing movement of scientists, land management agencies, conservation organizations, and Indigenous groups is working to return fire to marshes like this one and to fire-adapted forests and grasslands throughout the United States. In the eastern US, where wildfires burn far less land than in the West, fire’s century-long absence has upended ecosystems. Forests once dominated by fire-adapted trees like oaks, hickories, and pines have been taken over by species that support far less wildlife. And overcrowded trees growing in woods without regular fire have stifled understory biodiversity while raising the risk of damaging blazes.“It’s really hard to express the extent to which our natural areas have been drastically altered by taking away fire,” says Deborah Landau, an ecologist with The Nature Conservancy who helped plan the burn on Kirwan’s property.

But fire promoters face stiff challenges. Relatively few people today are trained and qualified to burn. And everything from weather to government regulations to public hostility to fire conspires to keep fire off the land. A long-held view of fire as unnatural and threatening—amplified by dramatic images of climate change-fueled megafires in the western US and elsewhere—is proving hard to overcome.