Longleaf pines and fire

When I think about fire, I tend to think of adjectives like destructive. Fire is associated with our concept of hell and with the crime of arson, and it’s often featured in images from wars. Uncontrolled wildfires destroy millions of acres a year and my heart always breaks when I read about a family left homeless by a house fire.

I think about the scary night we had an electric blanket catch on fire while we were sleeping. Luckily, when it burned my leg, I woke up, bundled the bedding into a huge wad, and pitched it out the door. With six kids upstairs sleeping, the potential for disaster left me shaking. All these years later, I get sick to my stomach when I think about what could have happened if I hadn’t awakened when I did.

On the positive side, fire provides heat and it cooks our food. The fire in our wood burning stove kept my house warm over the Christmas weekend, when temperatures dropped to zero and below. I love a nice campfire and sharing a bonfire with my friends is a wonderful pastime. The world would be a darker place without the light from a fire. Romance would suffer without lighted candles and, without a flame and red, shimmering charcoals, a roasted and perfectly toasted marshmallow would not exist.

I’ve read about the benefits of controlled burning in forests but until I visited a longleaf pine forest, I didn’t realize that fire can give life. Once upon a time, longleaf pines covered nearly 90 million acres in the southeast. With rapidly growing land development and suppressed burning, there are now less than 3 million acres of this majestic evergreen left.

Eglin Air Force Base, in Florida, is the largest air base in the Western Hemisphere. One of many different ecosystems located on the base is the largest remaining old-growth longleaf pine ecosystem in the world and Eglin is dedicated to restoring the longleaf pine sandhills. They now cover 80% of the base and are home to many threatened and endangered plants and animals. The use of fire is one of the tools used to restore this ecosystem there and in surrounding state parks.

Prescribed burns are used to restore the balance between native trees and plants. Fire encourages new growth, nourishes the soil, and allows more sunlight to penetrate the forest floor. Fire kills competing invasive plants and trees. As well, clearing the land allows space for newly planted seedlings.

Being just a few steps beyond normal, I haven’t figured out how they keep the longleaf pines from burning along with everything else. I’ll google that another day….or not!

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