Members of a fire team carry out a prescribed burn on Summers Mountain in Highland County in April 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

HIGHLAND COUNTY — On the warmest day of 2021 yet, the fire swept over Summers Mountain in a remote corner of Highland, a Virginia county so lightly populated that cattle outnumber humans by almost seven times.

At times the fire moved with startling rapidity, fast as an arrow of flame. Watching it spread along the southeast slope, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources forester Kent Burtner quoted the Bible: “The devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.” 

And yet at other times the fire seemed impossibly slow, pressing forward as gradually as waves lapping onto a shore — an inch here, an inch there. 

Neither the speed nor the spread were an accident. Both had been planned weeks in advance as part of a growing push by Virginia agencies and environmental partners to use fire as a tool to manage forests and the species that inhabit them. 

The practice, known as controlled or prescribed burning, isn’t new. For millennia humans have used fire to clear lands and promote the growth of certain trees and plants. But at the turn of the 20th century in the U.S., federal and state agencies came to define fire primarily as a threat and their chief role as to extinguish it. 

Those decisions would bind the nation to a decades-long policy of fire suppression that ultimately contributed to a rise in destructive wildfires and the transformation of ecosystems once shaped by fire’s presence and now reshaped by its absence. It would be years before federal and state governments acknowledged that far from destroying forests, fire can preserve them.

“Fire was part of the ecology and landscape of all these places since before Europeans came here,” said Burtner. But, he added, “We always think we have a better way.”

Hardwood forest on Summers Mountain, Highland County, during a prescribed burn in April 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Appalachian prairies

When most people think of Southern Appalachia, they think of forests — vast, dense, primeval.

But the forests of Southern Appalachia haven’t always looked the way they do now. When Europeans began to push into the Shenandoah Valley and west across the Blue Ridge in the 18th century, the forests they encountered would have felt much more spacious. In the Ridge and Valley region of Virginia between the Blue Ridge to the east and the Appalachian Plateau to the west, they were dominated by oaks, yellow pines and American chestnuts. The tree canopy was more open than it is today, letting in more sunlight, and the understory was less cluttered, leaving more spaces for wildlife to traverse. 

Much of the reason for the landscape was fire. 

“We do know that Indigenous people were burning,” said Justin Barnes, a forester with the Virginia Department of Forestry. “The Shenandoah Valley was open. We had bison, we had elk. So they were burning historically to keep these places open for grazing lands.” 

Over the years European settlers noted the practice in their records and diaries. As late as 1901, western Virginia chronicler Oren Morton in his “History of Highland County described the “Appalachian prairies of two centuries ago” as being due to “the systematic burning of the grass each fall.”

These controlled burns weren’t sporadic. Scientists over the past quarter century have turned to dendrochronology — the analysis of tree rings as a dating tool — as well as soil and vegetation analysis to confirm what was long known anecdotally: before the early 20th century, fire was frequent and widespread across much of the Appalachian Mountains.

Hardwood forest on Summers Mountain, Highland County, during a prescribed burn in April 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

“The vegetation of the Appalachian region has been shaped by a history of fire,” a 2017 U.S. Forest Service study confirmed. “Fires had recurred at short intervals for centuries before they became mostly excluded beginning in the early to middle 20th century.” 

It was into this world that two great forces burst: the railroad and industrialization. 

‘Absolute barrenness and sterility’

Even as Appalachia became wedded in the public imagination to coal, industrialists were eyeing its timber as a vast untapped source of wealth. As railroads made the once-remote region more accessible to the cities and ports, timber companies swarmed into the region. 

“There would be whole hillsides cut,” said Jean Lorber, a conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy. “That was a time of massive exploitation.” 

So sweeping was the devastation that the federal government became alarmed. A 1908 report to Congress by Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson found that 86 percent of Virginia’s more than 7.2 million acres of Southern Appalachian forest had been timbered. And while parts of that area were in different stages of regrowth, the overall trend was alarming. 

That the Southern Appalachian and White Mountain regions “are advancing toward a condition of barrenness and sterility is the conclusion of every man who has had a part in this investigation,” Wilson’s report read. “I do not refer to the loss merely of commercial timber. I mean absolute barrenness and sterility — without timber, without undergrowth, without soil.” 

Fire, the investigators worried, was also ravaging the landscape. Later the U.S. Forest Service would determine that fires were probably no more prevalent than usual during this period, but the vision of denuded mountain slopes scarred by flames had been imprinted on the mind of policymakers. Those images, coupled with devastating western wildfires like the Big Blowup of 1910, would contribute to the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911. This law not only allowed the federal government to purchase private forestland in the east for conservation but permitted the recently formed U.S. Forest Service to cooperate with the states to fight fires — and set up a system for funneling money to the states for the purpose of putting out fires. 

“The foundation of most state forestry agencies is fire suppression,” said Barnes. 

The view of fire as purely destructive culminated in the creation of two key fire suppression tools. One largely forgotten today by all but foresters was the “10 a.m. policy,” a directive instituted by the U.S. Forest Service in 1935. 

“If any fire was started in one day, the goal was to have it out by 10 a.m. the next day,” said Adam Coates, a fire ecologist with Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. “You can look at the charts and see they were pretty effective at that.” But, he added, the number and frequency of wildfires also began to increase. 

The second tool that emerged sits at the opposite end of the spectrum of notoriety: Smokey the Bear. Until the Forest Service quietly replaced the term “forest fires” with “wildfires” in 2003, the affable behatted bear inculcated generations of American children with the conviction that all forest fires are things to be extinguished.

Foresters today strike an ambivalent tone when they talk about this most visible symbol of America’s woods, who at one time was outstripped only by Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse as the nation’s most recognizable character.  

“Not that Smokey the Bear is bad,” said Virginia forester Burtner, “but Smokey the Bear kept a lot of fire out of the woods.” 

A new view of fire on the mountain

On Summers Mountain in Highland County this April, the legacy of nearly a century of fire suppression was all around. 

Where once oak trees, hickories and the Table Mountain pine — made famous by the novel and film “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” dominated the forest, other species have taken over. Lower down, in the understory, invasive species like autumn olive, Japanese barberry and garlic mustard have grown in profusion, crowding out natives. 

“It’s all about spaces and competition for resources,” said Tyler Urgo of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, who along with Burtner and Lorber was one of some two dozen people who had convened one day last week in the narrow Hupman Valley that morning to burn through 425 acres of forest.  

Under the fire suppression regime, newer species have pulled ahead in that competition all across the Southern Appalachians. 

“Forest density and canopy closure have increased to the point that fire-favored trees, especially oaks and pines, are failing to reproduce and are being replaced,” the U.S. Forest Service’s 2017 report found. “These genera are important for wildlife habitat, timber and aesthetics.” But as the older generation of big trees dies out, “they are being replaced by … species such as red maple that have colonized the shaded forest understory in the absence of fire.”

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that the U.S. Forest Service began realizing that fire had played an important selective function in the forests of yore. Oaks and other hardwoods that had once dominated southeastern forests were beginning to fade away as other younger trees blocked sunlight and prevented them from regenerating. 

Still other species like the Table Mountain pine and the longleaf pine that once covered the South from Tidewater Virginia to Texas even required fire to thrive. The former, said Coates, “has cones that are really rigid and hard, and they’re held together by a tight resin. And that resin really only opens if there’s intense heat applied to the cones.” 

Controlled burning can help reverse some of the newer trends underway, said Lorber of the Nature Conservancy.

“The reason we’re burning in the Appalachians is to restore missing forest conditions that used to be very common,” he said. “We’re not going for 100 percent oak all the time. We’re trying to shift the needle.” 

A fire team member participates in a test burn during a prescribed burn in Highland County in April 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury

The goals of prescribed burning go beyond diversifying the forest’s flora, however. Oaks in particular act as a keystone species in the Southern Appalachians, fostering a wealth of fauna higher on the food chain. Roughly twice the number of moth and butterfly species rely on oaks compared to maples, said Lorber, while “an acorn is like a Snickers bar to a deer or a turkey.” Samantha Lopez, a wildlife management supervisor with the Department of Wildlife Resources, recalled seeing more than half a dozen specimens of the critically endangered rusty patched bumble bee that had returned to one recently burned site in her district covering Augusta, Rockbridge, Highland and Bath counties. 

“Fire clears off the leaf litter, exposes the duff, and lets in all this new growth. That’s how we know the fire did its job,” said Hunter Ritchie, another wildlife management supervisor with DWR and one of the “burn bosses” overseeing the Summers Mountain burn. 

Clearing dead leaves and branches off the land does far more than encouraging new growth, however. It also dramatically reduces wildfire incidence by removing one of the three essential components of fire, along with heat and oxygen: fuel. 

Ironically, it’s the buildup of fuel caused by decades of fire suppression-only policies that contributes to increased wildfire incidence. The 2016 Gatlinburg wildfires that caused 14 deaths were fed in part by years upon years during which fallen leaves, brush and trees were allowed to accumulate. 

“In really dry seasons that stuff is primed to ignite,” said Coates. And “a lot of times one burn is not going to change a lot. So when we talk about prescribed fire we’re really talking about doing it multiple times in sequence.” 

A fire society

But while a wildfire may only take a single careless spark to light, prescribed burns, particularly those repeated every few years, require far more monumental efforts in planning, resources and manpower. 

“Understory burning” like the Summers Mountain burn is relatively new to the East Coast. And while Virginia agencies over the past half-century conducted open-field burns or burned over already timbered areas to prepare the ground for reseeding, both Burtner of the Department of Wildlife Resources and Barnes of the Department of Forestry said that it wasn’t until the last 10 to 12 years that prescribed burns as a tool of forest management began to be widely and regularly used.

“Drip cans” containing a mix of diesel and gasoline used in a prescribed burn. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Since then their use has accelerated. Over the past decade, the Department of Forestry alone has conducted 222 burns covering more than 6,000 acres annually on average. COVID-19 halted most of 2020’s planned burning but appears only to have increased state agencies’ eagerness to get back into the field.

“There’s only so many good burn days,” said Ritchie. But 2021 “has definitely been the most productive season.” 

That productivity is likely due in part to not only agency buy-in — more than half a dozen state and federal agencies as well as the Nature Conservancy are typically involved in each Appalachian prescribed burn — but changing attitudes. 

“The apprehension for the longest time was because we have hardwood forests,” said Coates of Virginia Tech. Unlike the commercially harvested pine stands of southeastern Virginia, “you go into our forests, and you could have individual trees that are worth thousands of dollars.”

Research as well as experience have eased those fears. Most Appalachian prescribed burns, like the one on Summers Mountain, are low and slow, intended to burn off understory competition rather than harm any of the dominant trees. Because of their controlled intensity, they also behave fundamentally differently than wildfires. Rather than removing surface soil and harming water quality through erosion, prescribed burns have actually been shown to improve water quality, said Coates.

“Our landowners in Virginia are more receptive to it,” Barnes said. “There are still folks that aren’t, but the movement itself is positive, and there’s more and more buy-in.” 

As prescribed burns have become more common, the public is also increasingly seeing them as distinct from wildfires. And while prescribed burns always come with risks — each one “is a wildfire looking for a place to happen,” Burtner likes to say — their execution is highly choreographed. Organized into divisions and then smaller units, members of a fire team are constantly in communication with one another and with their burn boss. This year, thanks to the Nature Conservancy, some burning can also be carried out by a sophisticated drone system that drops a product known as “Dragon Eggs” that ignite and spread fire without having to send people into a targeted zone. 

Sam Lindblom of the Nature Conservancy prepares a drone to drop ignitable “Dragon Eggs” over Summers Mountain during a prescribed burn in Highland County in April 2021. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

So far, the program seems to be working: “There’s more forest in Virginia now than there’s been, even if we have development,” said Barnes. 

Much still remains to be done. But the re-embrace of fire as a tool of forest management seems to many foresters a pivotal moment, one that fits within a broader reevaluation of humanity’s relationship with nature. 

“We’ve confined fire to places that feel safe for us, but we are a fire society,” said Coates. “We are inherently reliant on it.” 

It’s worth remembering that to the Greeks, fire was seen as so precious that a god had been willing to sacrifice his liberty in order to bring such a gift to humans. After all, while flames that leap like a roaring lion may evoke fear and awe, “if you can keep” that lion “in its cage,” said Burtner, “you can do a lot of good.”