Fighting fire with fire: why we need to burn the land

by | Apr 4, 2022

Many people associate fire with destruction, devastation and loss. Large clouds of smoke, burly orange blazes, tree limbs snapping and ash falling like snow are some of the images we’ve all seen that contribute to the “fire is bad” perception. While wildfires can reach a dangerous and destructive level quickly, not all fire is bad. In fact, one of the most effective tools in reducing the risk of devastating wildfires is fire itself. Good fires are planned prescribed fires to help improve wildlife habitat and promote healthier forests while reducing the risks and impacts of wildfire. Prescribed fires are set intentionally in a defined area for specific management objectives. The N.C. Forest Service is committed to its efforts to increase the use of prescribed fire, while continuing to educate the public of its many benefits.

Wildland firefighter uses a drip torch to set a prescribed fire

Fire is a natural part of the environment and frequently occurs throughout North Carolina. Many forests require fire to remain healthy, and prescribed fire is an important, low-cost tool used to achieve that. Prescribed fire helps consume surface fuels and undesired vegetation while minimizing fire impacts to trees. Many plants and animals easily survive the low intensity burns. There are a variety of prescribed burns, known as understory or in-stand burns, including hazard reduction burning, wildlife and silvicultural and site preparation burning.

Hazard reduction burning diminishes understory shrubs, vines, leaves and woody debris that act as fuel for wildfires. This burning method usually takes place in the fall or winter when conditions are favorable for reducing potential damage to the trees and making fire intensity manageable.

Wildlife and silvicultural burning helps manage forestlands by allowing many species to grow and thrive. This burning practice increases sunlight reaching the ground, promoting fresh growth of low-growing shrubs, native grasses and herbaceous plants for wildlife food and habitat. It also controls the spread of some tree diseases, providing more growing space for healthier trees and prepares seedbed for natural regeneration of native trees. It’s also been proven to be an effective and cheap method for controlling tick populations and reducing the risk of tick-borne disease.

Site preparation burning, known as “site prep,” clears the way for reforestation activities by removing excessive woody debris and undesirable vegetation. This allows for new planting or the natural regeneration of tree seedlings. The practice of using fire, supported by science-driven recommendations, has become an established management tool that benefits all walks of life.

N. C. Forest Service conducting a site preparation burn for loblolly pine.
New seedling growth one month after prescribed fire was conducted at Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest (TCESF) in Elizabethtown, NC.
New seedling growth one month after prescribed fire was conducted at Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest (TCESF) in Elizabethtown, NC.

One of the most recent wildfires in North Carolina that garnered substantial attention from both the media and public was the Grindstone Fire on Pilot Mountain in late November 2021. The Grindstone Fire presented all the ugly features mentioned earlier and as bad as the fire looked at the top of Pilot Mountain, it was managed with a similar approach to that of a prescribed burn. Best management practices and previous use of good fire helped lessen the impact of the Grindstone Fire.

“Proper management of prescribed burns, fuels treatments and contingency lines that have been put in over the years has allowed for this fire to burn light on the landscape,” said Derek Moore, operations section chief for the NCFS Red Incident Management Team assigned to the Grindstone Fire.

The Grindstone Fire at Pilot Mountain State Park was managed in a similar manner as that of a prescribed fire.

“This type of fire, the way it backed slowly down the mountain is not too bad on the landscape. We could have taken a larger, more direct approach by pounding the mountain with aerial tankers, covering it with dozers, and scarring the mountain side by cutting lines, but that’s not the best approach for the land or the community around it.” Upon full containment, the Grindstone Fire burned approximately 1,100 acres. However, it did not result in the loss of any structures, property or most importantly, lives. Proper, proactive management of prescribed fire not only allowed responders to achieve relatively quick containment, it also minimized the impacts of wildfire.

Wildland firefighters set back burns in efforts to contain the Grindstone Fire at Pilot Mountain.

Approximately 523,730 acres of prescribed burning was reported to the N.C. Forest from 2015-2019. Most of that burning occurred in the southeastern part of the state. About 66% of that acreage was burned by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), N.C. Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). With strong application of prescribed burning throughout the state and growing interest among landowners, the N.C. Forest service has a key role to play.

North Carolina’s recently updated Forest Action Plan places emphasis on increasing the number of acres burned while promoting greater acceptance of prescribed fire to benefit forest health, wildlife habitat, fuel reduction and fire adapted ecosystems. This includes strategies such as offering mentoring programs to either increase the number of people burning or opportunities to burn. The action plan and its strategies are meant to strengthen the efforts and plans of forestry stakeholders across the state. The N.C Forest Service also offers a financial assistance cost-share program designated to help landowners with on-site prescribed burning, while practicing active and sustainable forest management that ensures healthy, productive and resilient forests for future generations.    

Prescribed fire is an age-old practice that was part of everyday life for Native Americans and early settlers. Today, it remains one of the most effective tools, helping North Carolina forests remain healthy and thrive. Numerous collaborative efforts across multiple agencies will continue to use this tool while proactively educating the public of its value. Recognizing the essential benefits of prescribed burning, Governor Roy Cooper proclaimed February 2022 as Prescribed Fire Awareness Month in North Carolina. To read the Governor’s proclamation, visit To learn more about the benefits of good fire and how to get started implementing prescribed fire on your land, visit