“We’re putting fire on the ground,” a voice shouts from behind a thicket of 20-foot-high cane. A Park Service employee in Texas’s Big Bend National Park has set fire to a section of river cane—a non-native species originally introduced as erosion control, but which presents a significant wildfire hazard. It doesn’t take long to burn several acres.
Using controlled or prescribed burns—fires started deliberately by trained rangers—as a way to manage invasive species in the national parks began in the 1950s in Florida’s Everglades. Fire was also found to be an integral part of the function of the natural habitat, but the importance of fire on the natural ecosystem has not always been understood. In the early twentieth century, any form of wildfire was thought to be devastating and was suppressed. According to the NPS, this policy began in Yellowstone in 1886 and was eventually incorporated into the National Parks Act of 1916. Scientists later concluded that fire not only assists germination, it recycles nutrients, reduces the accumulation of hazardous fuel (dead wood, scrub) and thwarts the impact of insects and disease.
Allowing wildfires to burn unhindered was questioned after the devastating Yellowstone fire of 1988 when a third of the park burned, but later the park was deemed healthier than it was before the fire. Today, wild- fires caused by lightning are allowed to burn in certain designated areas. Several million acres are “natural fire zones,” and prescribed burns are used to simulate the role of natural wildfire. But with climate change, wild- fires are becoming much more frequent and intense.
Now, controlled burns are planned carefully, with public outreach and preparation of the sites to ensure that the fires don’t burn beyond the intended area.