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How Controlled Burns Work

        Science | Matter

Burning's Backstory
Lynn Wolfe uses a drip torch to light dry grasses to burn a section of Maine's Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge. Burning the ground cover in the state's wildlife refuges is done on a five-year cycle and encourages the growth of plants like Beach Plum.
Lynn Wolfe uses a drip torch to light dry grasses to burn a section of Maine's Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge. Burning the ground cover in the state's wildlife refuges is done on a five-year cycle and encourages the growth of plants like Beach Plum.
John Ewing/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Controlled burning, sometimes called "prescribed burning" or "suppression fire," is an ancient practice used in all parts of the world to manage land. Humans have been starting fires for at least a million years, and ever since then we've been putting it to good use.

In North America, for instance, historical sources, taken together with the archaeological record, appear to show that native peoples made extensive use of fire to drive out game and to clear savannahs and prairies. Europeans arriving in the 16th century brought their own traditions of controlled burning to create fields for grazing and cultivation.

Immigrants' origins informed the methods they deployed. Whereas many of the Europeans who showed up in the Northeast came from regions where controlled burning was less common, the settlers who populated much of the South sailed from Scotland, Ireland and rural parts of western England. These new residents tended to have extensive experience using fire as a tool to shape and manage the landscape to promote herding and hunting. Their approach happened to coincide with the practices deployed by the Native Americans they displaced, resulting in a continuation of the use of controlled burning in the South.

After the Civil War, when wealthy northerners bought up many of the old plantations to use as hunting preserves, they brought their traditions of fire suppression with them. But suppressing fires promoted the growth of a woody understory, which in turn led to the decline in the hunters' favorite game: the bobwhite quail.

Puzzled, the plantation owners began talking to government wildlife experts. These discussions led to a 1920s study headed by one Herbert L. Stoddard. The problem, Stoddard concluded, was fire suppression. Stoddard's published findings have since been identified as an important contribution to our understanding of the vital role fire plays in nature. In fact, Stoddard became a passionate spokesman for the use of controlled burning, not only for the promotion of game hunting, but for healthy forests [source: Johnson and Hale].

But Stoddard had many opponents, and it would be decades before controlled burning would receive mainstream recognition as the vital tool it has become.