Forest fires — then and now

Published 9:39 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2014

By Susan and Biff Andrews


Native Americans lived in harmony with the land and all of nature’s phenomena.

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One “element” they used to shape the forest, improve hunting and agriculture, manage pests and wage literal and economic war was fire.

It was used to drive large game animals over cliffs, into canyons or against lakes or rivers. Smoke was used to force bears and raccoons from their dens. Fire was used to clear fields so deer would have tender shoots to graze on; raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries could grow free of weeds and vines.

Native Americans knew fire kept pests such as flies, mosquitoes, and snakes away from a village. They knew how to fight fire with fire — to remove brush from around a village so a forest fire could not spread to them.

Fire was used to fell large trees — drill 2 holes at 90 degrees into a large tree and insert burning charcoal. Who needs a steel axe?

Areas close to lakes and rivers would be cleared of brush to make hunting beaver, muskrats and waterfowl easier. Hunting trails and the woods surrounding villages would be cleared of brush to give better visibility of game.

In war, fire was used as a weapon or for extortion — if you don’t submit, we’ll burn you out.

In short, Native Americans used fire as a tool.

Then came the Europeans, who copied American Indians’ use of fire to create croplands and grazing lands. The Mayflower settlers chose their site, because the brush had already been cleared thereabouts.

In the 19th century, wealthy hunters flocked to game preserves set up for hunting pheasant and quail on lands cleared by fire.


Fast forward to the 1930’s. A couple of Harvard botanists stopped by the Zuni Pine Barrens just southwest of Smithfield. They discovered in the clear forest understory — clear due to fire — under long leaf pines — orchids unknown anywhere else in the U.S.

But at about this time, people started to aggressively stop forests from burning. The understory became brushy and dense with vines. Goodbye, clear understory. Goodbye, orchids.

As time passed, the choked underbrush killed off the long leaf pine — another story in itself. Longleaf pines only survive when burned every one to three years. They are genetically adapted to fire. A 4-year-old tree may be only 6 inches tall, as it is growing down, not up. Their long needles make perfect tinder for fire as they interlace on the dry sunny forest floor. Longleaf pines crave fire and light.

But, as noted, the Longleaf pines are dying out. Once, they covered a million acres of Southeast Virginia. Now there are only 200 or so trees left of native Virginia stock, though more than a dozen tracts of land have now been seeded/reforested with other varieties.

Which brings us back to fire. Longleaf pines must burn to survive. The Virginia Department of Forestry and the Nature Conservancy conduct controlled burns under safe conditions, burning away the understory as Native Americans did and allowing light through to the forest floor, which had not seen it for nearly a century.

And at the Blackwater Ecological preserve, which is part of the Zuni Pine Barrens of 80 years ago, after the second prescribed burn, someone noticed an orchid — an orchid not seen in the U.S. since the 1930s.

The Native American prophet Black Elk predicted that the “wheel” would come full circle, that modern man would return to the old Indian ways. So let it be written; so let it be done.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at