Friendly fire in suburbia

Renewal: Suppressing fire has affected the ecology of close-in forests, sometimes for the worse.

September 22, 2000

CONTROLLED BURNS -- where undergrowth and scrub brush are deliberately set on fire -- are commonplace in the West. But a three-year experiment in Soldiers Delight -- located about two miles from Owings Mills Mall -- is demonstrating that set fires have tremendous benefits for suburban woodlands and open space.

Not far from the manicured lawns of Deer Park and the new townhouses in Ownings Mills, waves of red and silver prairie grass tassels shimmer in large fields as they did for thousands of years. The endangered sandplain gerardia is once again flourishing, thanks to several controlled fires since 1998. The number of plants has increased threefold in Soldiers Delight, one of the few places in the world where it grows.

Fire is a force of nature that we have eliminated from our suburban environment, just as we have eradicated the wolf and mountain lion. Naturalists believe that the loss of fire has contributed -- along with gypsy moths -- to the decline of oak forests along the East Coast. Red maples and other shade-tolerant species are overtaking the oaks.

Clearing for farms, initially, and for subdivisions, more recently, has eliminated the wildfires that would periodically ravage woodlands, destroying some plants and trees and renewing others.

Burning forests near human settlements is fraught with danger. This summer, scores of homes and businesses went up in flames in Los Alamos, New Mexico when firefighters could not control fires they had set.

But the burns in Soldiers Delight have been small -- 100 acres at most. More will be conducted until about 1,000 acres have been burned.

If we desire to recreate a more natural landscape in suburban woodlands and fields, can we learn to live with this fundamental force of nature?

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