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The great anti-fire campaign.

In the East, fire control was at least partly a social concern, but its results have changed these forests too.

The advent of Forest Service fire control marked a distinctly new era in environmental impact. Long before there was human activity in North America, certain flora species had adapted to lightning fires, which still account for 10 percent of the fires in the U.S. today. Native Americans regularly "broadcast" fire, mostly for hunting purposes, and Euroamericans settling in the southern part of the country evolved a distinct "folk culture" involving annual burning of wood and agricultural lands. Consequently, the South came to dominate fire incidence in the U.S., and fire control dominated southern national-forest history during the early 20th century.

Virginia's Jefferson National Forest (JNF), southernmost in the Forest Service's old Northeast Region (Region 7), became a "hotspot" in fire control. In 1936, the Jefferson and Cumberland (now the Daniel Boone) national forests accounted for 80 percent of Region 7's fire problems. JNF Ranger Lewis Smith documented two major fires on the Glenwood Ranger District--in 1930 and 1942--that each burned a couple thousand acres of forest land. As many as 1,200 firefighters fought to suppress a couple of large fires on the Holston Ranger District in 1941; one burned at least 5,000 acres. While most Region 7 forests received no more than 60 copies of the 1951 "Prevent Forest Fires" poster, Forest Service records show the JNF received 325.

During the early 20th century, various lumber, land, and coal companies built some of the first fire towers on JNF or adjoining territory. In 1917, for instance, Wise County's Virginia Iron and Coal Company built a wooden tower near Big Stone Gap; Clinchfield Coal Corporation and W.M. Ritter Lumber Company contributed three more during the same period. Steel towers began to replace these and other early wooden towers in 1928. That trend continued into the late 1950s and early 1960s until aerial fire detection replaced lookout towers altogether.

The original "towermen" could see about 10 miles in any direction, and scanned the horizon every 15 minutes during daylight hours. During a bad fire season, they took only short naps throughout the night, rising every hour to watch for fire.

Early JNF fire-prevention technology included the "Osborne firefinder," which coordinated a circular dial with a map of a given tower's territory (zero indicating due north), and enabled the towerman to radio or telephone a fire's location to a dispatcher. The dispatcher, in turn, alerted fire wardens. The towerman would then continue to monitor the fire with the Osborne firefinder, notifying the dispatcher of any changes.

"Fire-danger stations" contributed to early firefighting efforts by monitoring forest conditions. Each station employed an ingenious device for measuring ground moisture; rangers simply calibrated thin, absorbent basswood strips, whose weight significantly changed with minute moisture fluctuations. Three daily readings were necessary during the height of spring fire season--between March and May--when relatively safe forest conditions could turn highly dangerous within only a few hours. By 1940, the JNF had nine of these stations.

During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps performed much fire-prevention work on early JNF territory, building roads, trails, and fire towers; putting up telephone lines; and carrying out the practice of direct fire suppression.

Fire problems tended to accompany newly acquired territory, but once Forest Service personnel began working with the local people, the incidence of fire declined, recalled former JNF employee Ernie Karger. Rangers used a variety of materials and techniques to convey their anti-fire message: posters and signs, public lectures, radio messages, newspaper and magazine articles, motion pictures, exhibits, and visits to area schools.

"You loafed around country stores," former JNF Holston Ranger District employee William Campbell remembered. "That was part of fire prevention."

Much of the Forest Service's success depended on its rangers' ability to become part of the local communities. It also hinged on the hiring of local fire wardens. In fact, local wardens proved to be a vital part of early fire control, and lost that role only with the advent of the "step test" during the mid-1960s. Local wardens helped close the gap that lay between a national entity--the Forest Service--and local mindsets. A 1931 Forest Service Fire Handbook illustrated this important aspect, and read almost like a study in psychology:

Of prime importance we have the task of getting close to our local people, of knowing them as intimately as possible, of studying ways and means of directing their thoughts into right channels. Such a task requires the best of tact, diplomacy, and fellowship. It demands a keen insight into the workings of a man's mind, a study of the facts or fancies which cause him to reason in certain ways.

Indeed, during 1938-39, the Forest Service sponsored a psychological study of traditional southern "folk burning" in an effort to better understand, and therefore combat, this prevalent problem. This approach proved quite important when the problem was arson. Several motivations lay behind arson, including revenge against the Forest Service, simple pyromania, or the economic incentive provided by employment on firefighting crews.

Cecil Cordell, who began working for the Forest Service in the Appalachians during the 1950s, recalled that the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina commonly hired suspected arsonists for fire duty. In fact, the Pisgah hired the man convicted and sentenced for the "Sunburst Fire," one of the worst in North Carolina history. Afterward, Cordell said, this man proved to be a good fire-tower lookout, and the forest had no more trouble from him.

This tactic of "if you can't beat them, ask them to join you" served the Forest Service well in an economically poor region where "job fires" predominated. As William Campbell recalled, during the 1930s the federal government paid firefighters 75 cents an hour, compared to only 50 cents paid by the state of Virginia. Strangely enough, Campbell added, almost all the fires began on federal land. As JNF Ranger Van Alstine commented, tongue-in-cheek, in 1952, in the New Castle Record, "By some remarkable system I cannot understand, the state seldom has a large fire."

Here's further proof that the employment motivation in arson was great. Art Hadacek, who worked on the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas during the 1950s, recalled how local firefighters sometimes rigged time-delay incendiary devices in the forest, using a slow-burning "rope punk" or a magnifying glass positioned to focus the noon sun upon a pack of matches. They would then joke about it, predicting when and where they were going to have a fire that day--and they would! The Forest Service sometimes countered this tactic by employing only firefighters from outside the immediate locale, thus discouraging the local job incentive, William Campbell said.

Despite all the arson, most national-forest fires were accidental. Careless brush-burners, hunters, lumber mills, and campers all contributed to accidental fire, as did open-flame mash-burning moonshine operators. Before the days of chemical pesticides, tobacco farmers burned their crop beds every year to kill weeds and insects; a fire in a field abutting the forest could easily spread. Before the days of barbed wire, forest fires spurred farmers to light their own backfires in an effort to protect their chestnut-rail fences--no longer replaceable since blight has all but destroyed that tree. These backfires, of course, burned much land that might otherwise have escaped damage.

During the early years of the anti-fire campaign, the Forest Service used punishment more as an educational measure than anything else. Former JNF Clinch Ranger District employee Brad Clark recalled that the general legal policy surrounding accidental fires on the early Clinch was a four-part process. The first offense elicited a friendly letter from the ranger. The next violation earned the careless burner a ticket, which the local judge would usually suspend--with a warning. The third offense resulted in a moderate fine, and the fourth a heavy fine for the 1930s--$50-$75.

Former JNF employee Karger recalled a similar approach, in which the Forest Service wanted to educate "firebugs" more than punish them. Karger and various JNF rangers would approach a judge prior to a trial and explain their desire to befriend, rather than alienate, incendiaries. As a result, judges tended to hand down a suspended sentence at first, accompanied by a stern lecture, with the promise that a second offense would incur actual punishment combined with the original suspended sentence.

In the long run, the anti-fire campaign proved to be effective, especially with the advent of World War II. The Allied Effort, so highly dependent upon timber resources, helped make woodland arson "tantamount to sabotage," and even the FBI began investigating forest incendiarism. During the 1940s, a remarkable drop took place in JNF incendiary fires, accounting for 46 percent of all fires in 1941, 25 percent the following year, 20 percent the next, and only 3 percent in 1947.

In August 1952, New Castle District Ranger Van Alstine jokingly asked if anyone wanted to buy two of his District's fire towers. Essential during the early years, that method of fire detection, reporting, and communication was rapidly becoming obsolete. "Today we have few fires and most of them are reported by local residents as soon as a lookout could report them," he told the New Castle Record. "Improved communication facilities ... and good citizens have cancelled out the value of these towers."

Fire suppression continues to be a concern in the JNF and other southern Appalachian national forests, though not nearly to the extent that prompted the evangelical crusade during the early 20th century. The Forest Service won that crusade, and contributed protection that was vital to cut-over eastern woodlands that were regenerating. But now that the forest has recovered, fire's natural place in the ecosystem has become a hotly debated topic. Fire prevention has encouraged shade-tolerant hardwood species, such as beech and sugar maple, to the detriment of oaks. Ironically, human impact has dramatically influenced the forest environment through protective rather than destructive means.

Many traditional foresters, whose careers spanned the early 20th century and were based largely on reversing man-caused fires throughout the South, resisted the notion of an actual deliberate burning. Opponents of prescribed burning feared soil and seed destruction, as well as losing control of the fires. Proponents claimed that fire actually stimulated certain new seed germinations, and rid the forest of dangerous underbrush, a potential incendiary or wildfire hazard.

In any case, by the late 1950s the Forest Service had largely come to accept at least the concept of prescribed burning. Controlled or prescribed burning has never been as applicable in Appalachian hardwood forests as it came to be in southern pine stands, but a growing number of rangers feel that earlier efforts overplayed the Smokey Bear image.

Certainly fire has played an integral part in the Appalachian hardwood ecosystem in the past, and man's fire suppression has influenced this ecosystem. As JNF Ranger Bob Boardwine observed, hard pine species are now fading on his New Castle District's southwestern slopes, reflecting the successful 50-year-old fire-suppression era. And as former JNF silviculturist Bob Colona indicated, while pine may not be considered commercially valuable, its loss diminishes an ecosystem's diversity, affecting the flora and fauna species that had been dependent upon it. Even in terms of timber management, prescribed burning may be more applicable to hardwood forests than many foresters have traditionally thought.

In 1988, David Van Lear and Thomas Waldrop observed that fire actually encourages certain tree species in the Appalachian forests, including some oak, and pitch and Table Mountain pines. Fire discourages species with thinner bark, such as maple and poplar, though a poplar seeds can benefit from fire. But since maple and poplar tend to dominate former oak sites, prescribed fire could become a tool for regenerating an oak forest. Still, researchers are only beginning to understand parts of the complex Appalachian hardwood ecosystem, and once seemingly beneficial practices--such as fire suppression--have so far had unforeseen results.

But one thing is certain: Fire's positive possibilities have only become even ponderable through the long-term success of the great anti-fire campaign.

Will Sarvis is a former historian for Jefferson National Forest in Roanoke, Virginia.
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Title Annotation:Burning Issues; Forest Service fire control
Author:Sarvis, Will
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1993
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