Why fire matters

Why fire matters

December 22, 2014  |  Ear to the Sand

For decades, Smokey the Bear has indoctrinated us with the idea that fire is bad for forests.

Smokey the Bear was wrong.

Most public lands managers are finally realizing the grave mistake of suppressing wildfire. Fire suppression leads to more catastrophic wildfires and smothers the ecosystems. Fire is as essential as rain to the health of forests.

On Cumberland Island, several species and communities cannot exist without fire. Endangered long leaf pines will not reproduce without the presence of fire. Live oaks benefit from fire.Fire-adapted plants such as saw palmetto, stagger bush, pine and bay compose a large portion of the north end of the island. Without periodic fires, the community loses much of its biodiversity. Even the wetlands rely on fire to control encroaching vegetation and remove accumulated organic material during dry spells.

Under National Park Service management, fires have been controlled and prevented on Cumberland for the past three decades. As a result, colonial nesting wading birds no longer nest on the island. Wood storks once nested heavily on Cumberland Island, but a lack of fire has allowed vegetation to encroach upon their nesting sites and made the storks vulnerable to predators. Wood storks, egrets, and night herons have abandoned the island as a nesting site.

The fire history of the scrub forest community shows a major burn every 25 to 30 years. However, the National Park Service’s full fire suppression policy on Cumberland Island has interrupted this natural cycle.  Continued fire suppression endangers the island’s ecological health.

But won’t fire threaten the island’s homes and historic structures? Fire suppression is far more of a danger than natural fire. Regular wildfires prevent the buildup of fuel loads, while thirty years of fire suppression turn the forest into a tinder box.

Residences and historic structures are always protected fully under any fire management plan. However, the island needs a fire management plan that allows natural fires to burn—especially in the wilderness. Without fire, the island’s flora and fauna will continue to suffer.

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