Forests and fire: A love/hate relationship

by Katherine McFarland, Science & Technology Program Specialist

This Arbor Day, as we celebrate all things tree, let us take a moment to reflect on the importance of fire. If this statement seems confusing, allow me to explain. Despite its seemingly contradictory appearance, fire is a necessary part of most forest ecosystems. I have taken part in a few controlled burns and, while earning my Smokey Bear pin, I found out that the distinction between wildfires and other fire is an important one.

Prescribed burn in the Loess Hills of Iowa.

Most people are familiar with Smokey Bear and his famous message, “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.” Growing up I took this message very seriously. I pestered my parents whenever we picnicked to make sure that the fire was completely out before we moved on, and watched for discarded cigarette butts. However, since my childhood Smokey’s message has changed because “wildfires” instead of “forest fires” are now the target.

Smokey Bear has been promoting the prevention of forest fires since his creation in the 1940s by the Forest Service and the Wartime Advertising Council. At the time, forest fires were a threat to national security as a Japanese submarine in 1942 had almost set the Los Padres National Forest ablaze when a Santa Barbara oil field was hit by incendiary shells. With statistics at the time showing that nine out of 10 domestic fires were caused by people, not lightning, it was thought that eliminating forest fires caused by U.S. citizens would greatly reduce chances of a national disaster. Eventually, Smokey was chosen as the mascot for the campaign (after his predecessor Bambi retired), and has been promoting his message of fire prevention ever since.

1956 U.S. and State Forest Service stamp from http://www.smokeybear.com.

Interestingly, in 2001 Smokey’s message changed to, “Remember … only you can prevent wildfires.” This statement emphasizes personal responsibility in using fire while allowing for its importance as a tool of ecosystem management. In the hands of trained professionals, a prescribed fire (a.k.a. controlled burn) can eliminate excess undergrowth allowing plants and animals to flourish, while preventing fuel for a large wildfire to build.

Controlled burns are planned in advance to take into account weather and societal conditions, insure firebreaks and fire crews are in place and decrease chances of wildfire.

Diagram of a controlled burn created by the Florida Division of Forestry.

This Arbor Day, Friday, April 29, the Indiana State Museum is celebrating with tree plantings, activities and educational opportunities. Please join us from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. to explore the wide variety of ways you can care for Indiana’s trees.

Angel Mounds says goodbye to weeds!

The fire!

The fire!

Yesterday we conducted our annual/biannual burn of the mounds at Angel Mounds State Historic Site. We were able to take care of three of the mounds (A, E and G) with great success on a total wipeout of the “bad” plants (we hope). While they were at it, DNR Fire Headquarters staff burned about five acres of the fields around the site in an effort to rid us of broom sage and give our wildflower plantings a chance to take off well this spring.

The results.

The results.

After a burn, the site takes on a post-apocalyptic appearance, especially right after the fire goes out because the ground is “steaming” with the last of the smoke. I’m sure the neighbors wondered why huge plumes of smoke were blowing through the neighborhood. Fortunately, the wind dissipated the smoke quickly and we received no irate phone calls.

We are planning on more for next year, tackling one of the largest fields where the temple mound is situated.

Mike Linderman is the sectional archaeology manager at Angel Mounds State Historic Site.