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History of Fire in the Southern Appalachians

Each year, the Forest Service and partners work to treat around 30,000 acres of the Chattahoochee and Oconee National Forests with prescribed fire. Prescribed fire plays a huge role not just in protecting communities from dangerous wildfires, but also in creating healthier forest ecosystems. Fire has been an essential natural process in Appalachian oak and pine forests for thousands of years. Researchers studying fire-scarred trees have found that fires occurred periodically, often every 3-9 years, dating back to the mid-1600s, and soil charcoal records show that fire has been a part of these mountains for at least 10,000 years. Lightning caused some fires, and Native Americans intentionally set others to help open the forest understory, which increased plant diversity, improved browse for wildlife, and made travelling easier.

Early European settlers continued to use fire as a tool to shape their surroundings. They used fire to clear land and saw that occasional fires kept ridgetops open and sunny, which increased wild blueberry crops and also provided benefits for grazing livestock and game. 

Creeping fire on Cohutta WildernessHowever, after the turn of the 20th century, the number of people had significantly increased, and fires began to be seen as destructive, so state and federal agencies were assigned to aggressively fight forest fires. The subsequent absence of fire during that time transformed our forests. There are fewer grasses and other open habitat plants, and there are more shrubs and tree species in our forests that are not adapted to fire. The total number of trees per acre is unnaturally high and oaks and some species of pines have had trouble regenerating in the closed canopy conditions.

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A naturally caused fire burns in the Cohutta Wilderness of Chattahoochee National Forest, October 2016.