A species of American pine thrives even when burned. Southerners are rekindling ‘fire culture’ to expand its range

WEST END, N.C. (AP) — Jesse Wimberley burns woods with neighbors.

Using new equipment to revive an old communal tradition, they set fire to wiregrass and forest debris with drip torches, fanning embers with leaf blowers.

Wimberley, 65, assembles groups of eight North Carolina Burning leaf litter in counties will starve future wildfires. The burning clears space for longleaf pine, a tree species whose seeds will not germinate on bushes blocking the bare soil. Since 2016, fourth-generation Burners have promoted a growing movement to formalize these volunteer ranks.

Prescribed burns are proving vital to the efforts of association conservationists. to restore The longleaf pine range that forms the backbone of forest ecology in the American Southeast. Volunteer teams, many working on private land where participants live or earn a living, are filling gaps in service and knowledge one at a time.

Prescribed fires, intentional burns that mimic natural fires important to forest health, require more hands than experts. In North Carolina, the practice sometimes ends with a barbecue.

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"Southern people like to come together and work and help each other and eat something," Wimberly said. "Fire isn't something you do on your own."

According to researchers at North Carolina State University, more than 100 associations exist throughout 18 states, and the Southeast is a hot spot for new associations. Wimberly's Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association is believed to be the first organization in the area, and the group reports that it has helped 500 people clear land or learn how to do it themselves.

This spread follows an effort by federal officials to suppress wildfires in the last century. This policy sought to protect the growing footprint of private homes and disrupt the fire cycles that accompany longleaf growth, which indigenous peoples and early settlers simulated through targeted burning.

“Fire is medicine and it heals the land. It is also medicine for our people,” said Courtney Steed, outreach coordinator for the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association and a member of the Lumbee Tribe. "It's getting us back in touch with our traditions."

Longleaf pine ecosystem covers only 3% 140,000 square miles (360,000 square kilometres) before industrialization and urbanisation. But there are some pockets left, from Virginia From Texas to Florida. The system's greenery still harbors bobwhite quail and other declining species. Conifers are particularly resistant to drought, a threat that is becoming more common and more severe due to climate change.

A large tent of environmentalists, hunters, nonprofit groups and government agencies recently celebrated a 53% increase in the longleaf pine range since 2009, spanning an estimated 8,100 square miles (20,000 square kilometers). However, those steps fell short of their goal of reaching 12,500 square miles (32,000 square kilometers).

Private landowners are at the center of the coalition's latest restoration effort. According to the US Longleaf Restoration Initiative, they account for about 86% of the forest land in the South.

The partnership needs thousands of new landowners to support longleaf management on their properties. Newborn burn associations are key in their education, according to a 15-year plan released in November.

Federal agencies support this effort through activities such as invasive species removal and land management workshops. Approximately $50 million in federal grants is available for projects promoting forest health, including prescribed fires.

The US Department of Agriculture has a "Longleaf Pine Initiative", partnering with burn groups like Wimberley. Farm bill money supports planning and planting. Personnel can help install firebreaks.

But applicants are increasingly competing for limited funding that can't cover all necessary maintenance expenses, said USDA spokesman Matthew VanderSande.

Landowners say liability-concerned states are reluctant to send their relatively few burners onto private property and private contractors can't keep up with demand.

"When it's time to quit, you're on your own," said Keith Tribble, 62, who owns a North Carolina tree farm.

While state forestry services provide classes, Tribble credits the Burns Association for having the practical experience and staff needed to manage the pines with confidence.

Humidity and wind speed are the biggest factors in burning planning, according to Bennett Tucker, superintendent of Hitchcock Woods, manager of a private forest. South Carolina, Pine oil allows it to keep a fire almost always and it usually burns at a relative humidity between 25% and 50%.

“With a prescribed fire, we can control the where, when, how and all those factors by choosing the best conditions,” Tucker said.

Handheld weather meters ensure wind speed, temperature and humidity within limits according to pre-written plans. Prescriptions can also reduce potential liability in the event of a fire. Accidental fires are rare, according to studies by federal agencies and surveys of community burn groups. Despite 40 burns per year, Wimberly's teams haven't had one yet.

The number of safe burning days is decreasing due to climate change. Jennifer Fawcett, a wildland fire expert at North Carolina State University, said rising temperatures reduce relative humidity in the South and intensify periods when it is very dry.

As the severity and frequency of hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires increase, longleaf pines may become even more important. ecological resilience in the south, Deep roots support them during strong winds and spread far into the ground for water. Flames increase soil nutrients.

Furthermore, the surrounding ecosystems have few known rivals for biodiversity in the Americas. Light diffuses through open canopies over the sparse floors, giving way to flora like insect-eating plants that require sun exposure and wet soil. Gopher tortoises eat local vegetation and dig burrows up to 15-foot (4.5-meter) long to shelter other endangered species.

"It's more than just planting trees," said Lisa Lord, Longleaf Alliance conservation program director. “We want to take the time to restore all the values ​​of the forest.”

The education campaign known as the "Dixie Crusaders" in the late 1920s damaged those interdependent relationships. Federal officials turned Southerners against the practice and the burning stopped. Flammable needles and wiregrass piled up to dangerous tinder levels.

Wimberly's family protested, knowing that their livelihood depended on the fire. Their ancestors were the first to use it to "sweat" the pine sap to distill it into turpentine or export it as a sealant. Later generations burned it to save crops.

The Kindle looks different from the time Wimberly's mother used to drag the Kindle, known as a "fat lighter," through the woods. But people's understanding of its importance is coming back and the ranks are rising.

"We're all a bunch of fireworks," said Tribble, the tree farm owner.

Still, Tribble burns for a reason: He values ​​connecting to the people and the land.

Before it burned, brush littered the ground, blocking water flow to parts of the property that were "bone dry." Water now flows through more marshy areas and the call of the rarely seen red-cockaded woodpecker echoes from the mature pine trees. When the sky fills with smoke, wild turkeys become visible.

Steed, the Lumbee outreach coordinator, is excited by the reawakening of this active "fire culture" beyond the tribe, which he says he introduced to the region.

She used to run through her grandfather's burned woods as a child, but the area has gone without a fire for nearly a decade. Steed plans to hold his first pageant in the Wimberley forests next year and then manage the recently inherited family property.

“It feels empowering,” Steed said of prescribed fire. “This seems like a very solid way to connect with the past and guide the future.”

Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. report for usa is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Copyright 2023 The associated Press, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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