By Michael Scott Hill
Soon the wisp of light grey smoke began to rise out over the forest canopy below the whole right side of my open door. I can feel the aircraft slowing, and I move my right leather fire boot back out into the slipstream sweeping by the helicopter. With this slower speed, my boot is much easier to hold down onto the skid, and I hang my right knee comfortably outside as well. It is nice riding in the rear with the passenger door off, flying five hundred feet up in our Bell 407 helicopter above a deep green needle-sea of longleaf pine.
The firing boss comes over the mic. “You can turn the machine on and prepare to start firing.”
I key my mic to acknowledge. “Turning the machine on and preparing to start firing.” This consists of flipping up three switches before me, and with that, the balls pre-loaded into the hopper on the top of the machine begin agitating around their confined space.
The pilot has our helicopter’s flight path lined up to fly parallel next to our first run, where a long curtain of smoke is now drifting up from the forest floor. Suddenly he places us into a hard left turn to flip around and head back in the opposite direction to pick up on our next parallel strip.
That’s when I hear the firing boss’s voice again. “Mike, prepare to fire. It’ll be four gates, slow.”
I acknowledge his command into the aircraft’s radio. “Preparing to fire. four gates slow.” There is a two-part lever on the machine’s side, just above the needle-punching mechanism of the machine, which I can flip up to control the amount of balls that will be dropped from the aircraft. One lever will feed in either four channels of balls or I can lift up that lever’s insert to send down just two channels. And contrary to what you’d think, the least amount of balls being dropped actually starts a much more active and hotter fire below. The firing boss’s last order instructs me to position my flight-gloved right hand on top of the machine lever, controlling all four gates, and be ready to lift it, on order. I follow his command.
“Begin firing,” the firing boss says, and I reply, “I’m beginning firing,” and with an easy sweep of my fingers I flip up that lever to allow the now churning balls in this hopper before me to begin to enter the machine’s needle-punching area below.
This bulky silver plastic sphere dispenser (PSD) machine fills my half of the narrow helicopter floor before me. It has a clear lid allowing the balls inside its storage hopper to be seen, as well as several small windows over its four channel lines leading down from its hopper, the route the balls travel downward to get punched. With that lever up I watch the four lines of balls filling up into those channels slowly, as if rolling down into sets of parallel assembly lines. Seconds more, and the balls begin falling free of the machine, past our helicopter skid below in a slow motion in a series of chugs each carefully spaced out to be one at a time. I glance down from the open door, back beneath this great big sea of green treetops and down into their scruffy ground cover. As of yet there is no sign that our balls are starting any fires on this run. That will change and soon there will be plenty of orange dancing flames across all the needle-cast, grass and shrubs crowded in with these longleaf pines below.
When you look down at the green, rooftop canopy of a forest you are actually looking at a community, an ecosystem complex of interrelated vegetation and animals. Some of these communities are millions of years in the making, like this fragment of a forest we are flying over now, a remaining relic of the ancient lowland forests of the Southeastern United States. Before colonists arrived, massive longleaf pine woodlands like this once dominated the Southeast’s large well-drained lowland expanses, from the coastal plains all the way up to the rolling hills at the edge of Piedmont country that arrives just before rising into primarily oak-blanketed mountains.
These longleaf pines below us are tough trees. They can tolerate a wide range of moisture and nutrient levels. Individually they are attractive too, with their straight trunks, large clusters of long needles and giant cones.They were a key resource for early American colonists, valued as the source of pitch and turpentine for naval stores. These mighty longleaf pines preside over an inviting, endlessly complex series of open woodland communities stretching across the forest’s airy, sunlit character. At the ground level, you’ll find wiregrass and in some places, knee-high scrub oak, ankle-high huckleberries and sunflowers. There are plenty of animals down there too. If you look close you’ll see white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, fox squirrels and red-cockaded woodpeckers.
The longleaf pine woodlands do have a weakness. They can’t tolerate competition. They must have sunlight offered by open spaces, and to get that, they must have periodic fires to wash beneath them to cut down encroaching shrub layers. If the flames don’t come to reopen the forest so sunlight can return, the encroaching shrubs will eventually crowd out the longleaf pines so they can’t reproduce, and the longleaf woodlands transform into other, much thicker types of forest.
So fire is the friend of the longleaf pines, and in the past fires were fairly common where the longleaf pine once thrived. These fires that helped maintain the longleaf’s domination were once lit by Native Americans and lightning storms. Colonization led to the elimination of that fire, and where longleaf pine woodlands once covered large parts of the lower American Southeast, today they, and the complex communities they shelter, can only be found in less than five percent of their original massive range. They survive as fragmented relic vegetation pockets, like this one that we’re returning fire to today.
The types of fire the longleaf forests need are creeping, low-intensity fires that will clean off the wiregrass and shrubs, but allow mature trees to survive. A series of fire exposures, as frequent as every two to three years, tends to kill off most tree seedling and shrubs, but not the longleaf pines. Left in their natural fire-frequent condition, longleaf pine communities have a dense, ground cover that supports many other interacting species. This ground cover itself is made up of wiregrass and scrub, living beneath the pines that will carry flames and after they have been consumed and any possible competition eliminated, the longleaf pines again return to being the masters of the sunlight in their communities. This is very old cycle of life here in these forests, and its returning sunlight, also creates excellent conditions for the thriving of many other plants, animals and insects at home beneath the pines.
Longleaf pines — as with other fire-dependent ecosystems worldwide, such as Australia’s eucalyptus forests and grasslands, California’s chaparral, Montana’s lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine throughout its range, America’s central tall grass prairie or the Southeast American mountainous oak forests to name a few — have all evolved through millions of years of living closely with fire.
In the longleaf pine’s case, instead of growing up as miniature pine trees, they spend their first few years as youngsters without a trunk. The bud is the most vulnerable part for a young pine, and a young longleaf spends its first few seasons growing at a lower ground level; when a fire passes, the bud will remain cooler and passing flames will only burn off needles which can easily be re-grown. Their seedlings store its nutrients in their roots and, when they become ready, they sprout up as saplings sometimes as much as five feet over a year or two, which raises their branches and needles above the level of most cool burning fires.
As mature pines, the longleaf are also adapted to live with passages of fire The longleaf have evolved an open crown, they grow needles in clusters at the end of branches and they lack lower branches, traits which make them well adapted to living with fires. Their branches spread out wide so that future flames can’t spread easily from one limb to another. Their needles are also easily replaceable; if they get burned off, they can just re-grow in the aftermath of the fire.
As part of a intertwined ecosystem community, the longleaf pine have evolved a special relationship with wiregrass that is just as adapted to periodic exposure to flames. Like most grasses, once the grass’s blades are lost in a blaze, they sprout again, directly from its roots if needed, and grow vigorously. Many of the other plants of the longleaf community that grow down at the level of this grass can’t even flower unless they get an exposure to fire.
Forest animals have also adapted their lives to periodic fires. Larger animals will move deep into their burrows, or clear of the passage of flames, and some will even return before those flames are completely cooled, searching in its ashes for prey or seeds to consume. Other animals such as deer and turkeys (some of which we spot as we fly over) will return to a burned area weeks later to feed on fresh sprouts of grass.
For the tiny insects or other animals that can’t escape the heat or an exposure to fire, new members of their kind will return to the burned areas from unburned patches nearby, or hatch post-burn. All of this community down below us has been on nature’s scale, exposed to countless exposures to fire, and as the by-product its members have adapted to thrive in the shadows-and-light of these unique open pine forest woodlands. And without periodic fire exposures, they are and will continue to be vanishing from the landscape. This woodland — and its many interconnected cycles living below our helicopter and our flying drop of igniting spheres — truly needs fire. As much as it needs sun and air and water.
Fires can be classified as good – in that the fire can help simulate and maintain ecosystems — or bad. A bad fire burns too hot and kills off whole communities and afterwards helps set up conditions that can cause deep erosion to the land.
Today, flying five hundred feet above the green canopy sea of this longleaf pine forest, we are creating a good, cool, fast-moving fire, which is exactly what the pines need down there. Today we are dropping our igniting spheres to create our forest fire to make these longleaf pines smile again.
Today is their day.
Everyone of us at various times finds ourselves in need of a helping hand, and for this rare, remaining fragment of what once covered so much of the Southeast United States, we are now flying back and forth over of it, dropping our incendiary balls, as today is its day.
With our fire, we are giving its whole community system its rare opportunity to survive in a landscape so greatly altered by generations of forest clearances, residential and commercial development, the introduction of numerable exotic species, and fire protection.
It is a good day to be working for this fire-adapted forest, flying back and forth above this sea of green needles, raining down our balls of good fire. We drop the fire and as we help this forest burn we become, in a way, as much a part of the forest as the fire that we return, the fire the forest needs, an essential force for this ancient and highly complex ecosystem so in need of our flames.
Micheal Scott Hill is a contributing editor of Wildfire and a native of Virginia.