For millennia, North American ecosystems benefited from fire, mostly set by Indigenous people. Now, a movement is growing, particularly in the eastern U.S., to reintroduce controlled burns to forests and grasslands and restore the role of fire in creating biodiverse landscapes.
It’s an apocalyptic scene that has become all too familiar in recent years. Columns of thick black smoke rise from the land, turning the piercing late winter sun an otherworldly orange. The acrid smell of burning grass and trees wafts on the wind as dry stalks and dead trunks crackle and pop.
By sunset on this cold February day, the flat, low-lying landscape on Maryland’s Eastern Shore has been charred black as far as the eye can see, with a few licks of flames still working their way through small trees and fence posts.
But this is no climate change-fueled disaster. Quite the opposite: It’s an example of what ecologists call “good fire.” And Jeff Kirwan, whose 178-acre property we’re standing on, is thrilled by the flames ripping through his land. By clearing last year’s detritus, the fire will let sunlight hit the ground, stimulating marsh grasses to grow faster in the weeks ahead. Their roots will sequester carbon underground and, Kirwan hopes, build soil to keep the marsh above the surging water; sea level is rising faster here in the Chesapeake Bay region than almost anywhere on Earth.