Revival of Fire Culture in the US South: Rejuvenating Longleaf Pine Ecosystems

by Gabriel Martinez
Southern fire culture

Jesse Wimberley, 65, actively engages in the communal tradition of burning woods alongside his neighbors in North Carolina. With modern tools like drip torches and leaf blowers, these groups conduct controlled burns of wiregrasses and forest debris to prevent future wildfires and promote the growth of the longleaf pine, a species reliant on bare soil for seed germination. Since 2016, Wimberley has been pivotal in expanding these volunteer efforts across eight counties.

This practice has become crucial for conservationists working to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem, which is fundamental to the Southeastern United States’ forest ecology. These volunteer groups, many of whom are landowners in the areas they serve, are incrementally bridging gaps in service and knowledge through these controlled burns.

Further insights reveal that prescribed burning, an intentional fire-setting process essential for forest health, often concludes with communal barbecues in North Carolina. Wimberley emphasizes the Southern tradition of community and cooperation in these activities.

Over 100 associations across 18 states, with a concentration in the Southeast, have emerged, according to researchers from North Carolina State University. The Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association, initiated by Wimberley, stands out as a pioneering group in the region, having aided up to 500 individuals in land clearing and burn techniques.

Historically, federal policies aimed at fire suppression have disrupted the natural fire cycles crucial to longleaf pine development. This intervention came with the expansion of private residences and altered fire management practices that were once commonly executed by Indigenous populations and early settlers.

Courtney Steed, a member of the Lumbee Tribe and the outreach coordinator for the Sandhills Association, highlights the cultural significance of fire, seeing it as a way to reconnect with ancestral traditions.

The longleaf pine ecosystem, now reduced to just 3% of its original expanse, is still home to diverse species like the bobwhite quail. These pines are known for their drought resistance, a growing concern in the face of climate change. Recent efforts by a coalition of environmentalists, hunters, nonprofits, and government bodies have achieved a 53% increase in longleaf pine areas since 2009, although falling short of the targeted goal.

Private landowners, who control a significant portion of forested land in the South, are key to the ongoing restoration efforts. Federal support, including nearly $50 million in grants and initiatives like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Longleaf Pine Initiative,” assists in this endeavor, though funding remains a competitive challenge.

Local landowners express concerns about the limited resources for conducting burns, as state agencies are hesitant to engage in private land due to liability issues, and private contractors are overwhelmed by demand.

Keith Tribble, 62, a North Carolina tree farm owner, credits burn associations for providing the necessary hands-on experience and support. Factors like humidity and wind speed are critical in planning burns, as explained by Bennett Tucker, manager of a private forest in South Carolina. These controlled fires are meticulously planned, taking into account various environmental factors to minimize risks.

As climate change impacts the number of safe burn days, the role of longleaf pines in ecological resilience becomes increasingly vital. Their deep roots and fire-enhancing qualities contribute significantly to forest health.

Lisa Lord, The Longleaf Alliance conservation programs director, stresses the importance of holistic forest restoration, encompassing all its ecological values.

Recalling the “Dixie Crusaders” campaign in the late 1920s that discouraged burning, Wimberley’s family stands as an example of those who continued the practice, recognizing its necessity for their livelihood. Today, as public understanding and participation in prescribed burning grow, so does the community of those committed to this vital ecological practice.

The resurgence of this “fire culture” is particularly meaningful to individuals like Steed, who sees prescribed burning as a powerful way to honor the past and shape the future.

Pollard is associated with the Big Big News/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit organization that assigns journalists to local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Southern fire culture

What is the purpose of the fire culture being revived in the Southern U.S.?

The revival of the fire culture in the Southern United States primarily aims to support the growth of longleaf pine ecosystems. Controlled burning of woods helps prevent future wildfires and provides the bare soil necessary for longleaf pine seeds to sprout. These practices also reconnect communities with their ancestral fire management traditions.

How do controlled burns benefit the longleaf pine ecosystem?

Controlled burns clear undergrowth and debris, which are essential for creating the bare soil conditions needed for longleaf pine seeds to germinate. This practice also reduces the risk of uncontrolled wildfires, thereby protecting the longleaf pine ecosystem. Additionally, the burns help maintain the ecological balance, supporting various species that depend on this habitat.

Who participates in these controlled burn practices?

The controlled burn practices are carried out by a variety of participants including local landowners, conservationists, volunteers, and members of prescribed burn associations. These groups often consist of people who live or work on the land where the burns take place. Indigenous community members, like those from the Lumbee Tribe, also play a significant role in these practices, connecting the activity with their cultural heritage.

What challenges are faced in the practice of controlled burns?

Challenges include the need for more volunteers and experts to conduct burns, limited funding for these activities, and state liability concerns which hinder the involvement of state burners on private property. Additionally, climate change is reducing the number of days suitable for safe burning, posing a significant challenge to this practice.

How does climate change impact the longleaf pine ecosystems and fire culture?

Climate change leads to more severe and frequent droughts, making longleaf pines, which are drought-resistant, increasingly vital for ecological resilience. However, it also reduces the number of safe burn days, complicating the practice of prescribed burning. The changing climate necessitates a careful balance in maintaining the health of the longleaf pine ecosystems through controlled burns.

More about Southern fire culture

  • Longleaf Pine Ecosystems
  • Controlled Burning Practices
  • Southern Fire Culture History
  • Impact of Climate Change on Forest Ecosystems
  • Role of Indigenous Communities in Fire Management
  • Challenges in Controlled Burning
  • Conservation Efforts for Longleaf Pines
  • Prescribed Burn Associations and Their Function
  • Federal Policies on Forest Fire Management
  • Understanding Prescribed Burns and Their Benefits

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Kevin O'Reilly December 15, 2023 - 4:17 pm

good read but you could’ve explained more about how the climate change is affecting these practices, feels like an important point to miss.

Rachel Martinez December 15, 2023 - 6:58 pm

i love how this connects people back to their roots, shows how traditional knowledge is still so relevant today. Great article!

Mike Johnson December 15, 2023 - 8:55 pm

really interesting article, didn’t know much about fire culture in the south. its great to see how they are using traditional methods for good.

Tom Edwards December 15, 2023 - 9:19 pm

I think there’s a typo in the 3rd paragraph, otherwise, a very informative piece. Never knew about longleaf pines need for bare soil.

Linda Green December 16, 2023 - 2:53 am

The part about the Lumbee Tribe’s involvement is fascinating. it’s so important to acknowledge the role of indigenous peoples in these practices.

Sarah Smith December 16, 2023 - 4:15 am

Wow, I’m amazed how controlled burns can help the environment, always thought fire was just destructive!


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