Carmella Stirrat knows how to burn a forest. She’s done it dozens of times—often enough that at a prescribed fire in April, she was certain she had time for a rescue mission. She was worried about a particular longleaf pine tree amid thousands of others in the 53-acre burn area at Carvers Creek State Park in North Carolina. Surveyors had recently discovered endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nesting in it. With the fire she’d helped start that morning fast approaching, Stirrat plunged into the brush to ensure the invaluable tree would survive the blaze.
She hacked with a mattock at flammable shrubs crowding its base, revved up a leaf blower to clear dry needles that could loft flames into the canopy, then scampered out. The flames arrived, obliterating small sweetgum trees, shrubs, and just about everything else on the forest floor. They climbed into the canopies of large pines, borne aloft on updrafts powered by the heat itself. Flaming branches and chunks of pine bark floated to the ground.
As the blaze moved, leaving smoldering earth in its wake, Stirrat and her colleagues looked with a deep satisfaction at what they had done. Wielding fire like a painter applies a brush, they had wiped away years of overgrown vegetation, renewing the ecosystem. And to her relief, the nest tree was unscathed, promising refuge for at least one of the estimated 15,000 Red-cockaded Woodpeckers alive today.
Stirrat, fire program manager for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in North Carolina, works on the front lines of a complex conservation campaign to restore a tree, a bird, and an ecosystem that exist nowhere else on Earth. Longleaf pine forests once ruled a swath of the Southeast from Tidewater Virginia to east Texas to central Florida—almost 5 percent of the continental United States. But by the latter part of the 20th century, longleaf pine had been wiped out from more than 95 percent of the estimated 90 million acres it once commanded. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, which live only in the Southeast’s old-growth pine forests, plummeted to fewer than 10,000 birds, landing on the endangered species list in 1970.
Since then, a coalition of landowners and conservationists has worked to restore the tree and the bird. America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI) has accelerated the endeavor, using prescribed fires and tree plantings to increase longleaf habitat by nearly 50 percent since 2009. Woodpeckers have followed.
Despite these efforts, longleaf still occupies only a small fraction of its historical range. That’s because these woods need regular fire, experts say. Fire is not just beneficial but essential for this habitat. Yet only a sliver of the landscape burns as much as it should, in large part because there aren’t enough trained people on the ground, doing the work. “If you don’t use fire to manage longleaf and maintain its health, it will become something else,” says Carol Denhof, president of the Longleaf Alliance, an organization that coordinates the restoration. To ensure a future for the ecosystem and all the species that depend on it, the world is going to need a lot more fire starters like Stirrat.
ealthy longleaf forests have more open space than pines. Often called grasslands with trees, they’ve astounded observers for centuries. In 1791 famed botanist William Bartram described the grassy Eden he crossed in Georgia: “This plain is mostly a forest of the great long-leaved pine, the earth covered with grass, interspersed with an infinite variety of herbaceous plants, and embellished with extensive savannas, always green, sparkling with ponds of water.”
Bartram’s “infinite variety” includes around 900 plant species, including rare orchids, dozens of grasses and wildflowers, and some of the last remaining wild Venus flytraps. Gopher tortoises dig burrows used by, among other creatures, eastern indigo snakes that can grow to almost nine feet long. Fox squirrels, pocket gophers, and black bears live here; red wolves, which now number just a couple dozen in the wild, once did, too. Among the winged inhabitants are the last endangered Saint Francis’ satyr butterflies and some 100 bird species.
This ecosystem was already in decline when Bartram visited. Colonists settled Jamestown in 1607; by 1608 they were shipping pitch and tar made from longleaf to England, where the substances were used to coat ships to prevent decay. To make turpentine, workers scored longleaf trunks with axes, bleeding and weakening the trees. Millions of old-growth trees were cut.
The injury that nearly did longleaf in, however, came from another direction. For untold millennia, lightning strikes set blazes that rolled for miles across the forest floor. When humans arrived, they made fire one of the most important tools for managing the continent’s vast forests and savannas. In the Southeast, Indigenous tribes such as the Cherokee and Choctaw burned to carve paths for hunting and travel, promote beneficial plants, suppress pests and diseases, and clear areas for farming. After they displaced Native people from the land, European settlers largely kept the fires going.
Then, in 1905, the U.S. Forest Service was formed to grow trees for a largely deforested nation. In collaboration with industry, the agency promoted timber plantations and curtailing fires that had long ruled this continent. In 1928 a crew called the Dixie Crusaders brought a fire-suppression road show to 3 million people in the South. Deployed by the American Forestry Association, for three years the foresters held rallies, showed anti-fire movies, and distributed pamphlets. The effort wasn’t entirely successful: At one point, federal officials sent a psychiatrist to investigate why rural Southerners wouldn’t stop burning their woods. But over time, many lost their knowledge of fire.
A largely flameless century transformed the region. Without fire, healthy, open forests were replaced by dense, fire-prone thickets. The multitudinous understory gardens that thrilled Bartram largely vanished. Birds such as the Bachman’s Sparrow and Northern Bobwhite quail that need open spaces for breeding and feeding fell quiet.
Perhaps no Southeastern species has suffered more than Pinus palustris. Longleaf pine starts life as a pompom of needles. For months or years the puny-looking seedling does important work, plunging a taproot deep into the soil. When fire rips across the ground, those needles curl into a protective shield around a growing tip nestled at the center, allowing the deceptively tough little pine to survive while everything around it burns. “As long as fire is out there,” says Timothy Evans, director of land conservation for Audubon South Carolina, “longleaf is going to be the top competitor.” The young tree then shoots upward, and its growing tip soon reaches a height above the reach of most flames. Thick, flaky bark eventually protects the adult tree from all but the most intense infernos.
Longleafs aren’t just adapted to fire; they also enhance it. Fallen needles form airy, dry mats that pull flames across the forest floor. Fire makes pines and pines make fire—and pines make woodpeckers. Older trees are prone to nonlethal infection by a fungus that causes a condition called red heart. Red-cockaded Woodpeckers excavate nesting holes in the fungus-softened wood. Woodpeckers can nest in other old pines, but they prefer longleaf—and its disappearance created an avian housing crisis.
By the late 1960s, intact longleaf stands were rare. Dense plantations of loblolly, a faster-growing pine that doesn’t need fire, had gobbled up much of the Southeast, making the longleaf ecosystem among the most endangered in the country.
Then the pine and the woodpecker found an unlikely ally. Military bases in the South are often surrounded by longleaf forests that are sometimes accidentally set ablaze during training exercises, inadvertently fostering woodpecker habitat. When the Endangered Species Act passed in 1973, preventing the bird’s extinction became a federal priority and threatened the military’s ability to carry out operations where the birds lived. In the 1990s the military and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with partners, began protecting nesting trees, installing artificial nest boxes, and burning intentionally at bases across the South. Today North Carolina’s Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg), a sprawling 161,000-acre installation, is part of a network of military strongholds for both species and hosts an estimated 500 woodpecker family groups.
The military showed how to reverse longleaf’s long decline. But it controls only a small fraction of the forest’s historical range. To further the effort, in the late 2000s, scientists, conservationists, and federal officials formed ALRI to bring longleaf back across the South. Eighteen teams in nine states began planting trees at massive scale and helped landowners secure funding for prescribed burns. So far ALRI has established 1.6 million acres of longleaf, protected 325,000 acres of key habitat, and burned 15 million acres. The largest gains have been in the core historic range: Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, and northern Florida.
Longleaf-dominated forests now occupy an estimated 5.2 million acres. It’s a significant advance, but still millions of acres short of where ALRI hoped to be. Getting longleaf pines back on the ground—and woodpeckers back in the trees—will mean getting good fire into the hands of thousands of people across the South.
ixteen of those people, clad in yellow fire-retardant shirts and olive-green pants, converged at Carvers Creek State Park in April. Stirrat knew that in terms of objectives and strategy, the burn that day would resemble countless others. They’d bring fire to public land where woodpeckers from nearby Fort Liberty were taking up residence, which would clear deciduous trees and shrubs that were crowding out young longleafs.
In one key respect, however, the fire would be unlike nearly any she had worked: It would be crewed entirely by women and nonbinary fire professionals. Many were fresh off a two-week training in eastern North Carolina called the Women-in-Fire Prescribed Fire Training Exchange, or WTREX, designed to empower women working in fire management. Stirrat had recruited them to burn Carvers Creek, eager to keep the momentum going in the effort to make the field more safe, inclusive, and welcoming.
Even as millions of acres of land sit in desperate need of burning across the United States, the fire profession has excluded and repelled a huge fraction of the potential workforce. A 2016 Washington Post story detailed women fire professionals’ harrowing experiences of harassment and assault. The culture, often described as toxic, has stunted the careers of many firefighters, says Lenya Quinn-Davidson, WTREX cofounder and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council. “Women or other minorities will come into these jobs for a season or two,” she says, “and find it unwelcoming, hostile, or worse.” Even gear sent a message: Clothing made of Nomex, the main material used in protective gear for wildland fire workers, didn’t come in women’s sizes until a few years ago. The result is predictable. According to the Forest Service, only 1 wildland firefighter in 10 is a woman. Among those in leadership roles, the ratio is even lower.
Women who have persevered have faced challenges. Stirrat began working in fire suppression in 2008. She loved the intensity of the job and being in landscapes most people never see. “Fire sucked me in,” she says. But when she started to think about having children, she realized the field wasn’t going to accommodate her if, for example, she needed to limit smoke exposure while pregnant. She also couldn’t consistently find the training and mentoring she needed to advance. So when a TNC job came open in 2017, she jumped at the opportunity to work on prescribed burns full-time. She’s found better professional support and a deeper connection to the land. “You have a little bit more time to spend in the landscape, learning and talking,” Stirrat says. “You grow a respect for it.”
As Stirrat, Quinn-Davidson, and other women have risen through the ranks, they’ve started to change the fire profession’s culture and chip away at barriers that have kept their peers out. Even a few years ago, a crew composed totally of women and nonbinary people might have been a stretch. But after this year’s WTREX training, Stirrat felt she and her peers were ready to take charge.
Stirrat handed the burn-boss reins to Kristen Woodruff, then a superintendent with North Carolina’s state parks. The crew started with a test burn, dripping a flaming mixture of diesel and gasoline onto a patch of grass and short sweetgum trees at the corner of the designated burn unit. Satisfied that the fire was behaving as expected, Woodruff gave the go-ahead.
The crew split in two and dripped flaming liquid along the forest’s edges. The air filled with the smell of burnt leaves and needles. Sometimes flames roared into mini-infernos; other times they merely tickled the ground. After several hours, as planned, the blazes converged at the back of the unit. Dense vegetation had been reduced to ash. The scaly outer bark of taller trees was blackened, but they were alive. Young, three-foot-tall pines, invisible at the outset, had the charred landscape to themselves.
Stirrat, Woodruff, and a few others climbed into a utility vehicle to survey for lingering flames. As they approached the starting point, someone spotted reddish-purple flowers drooping from thin stalks—a thriving colony of carnivorous pitcher plants, some feasting on recently trapped insects. Seeing the native wetland dweller—one of the stars of the longleaf ecosystem—felt like an affirmation that the crew had done things right, Stirrat said: “It’s their way of saying, ‘Thank you.’”
Back at the parking lot, faces were smudged with black soot, tired but smiling as the team debriefed. “I’ve never been on a burn like this,” said Deborah Maurer, southeast program director for TNC’s North Carolina chapter, “and I’ve been burning for 21 years.” Woodruff said it was one of the coolest things she’d been involved with in a long time. Laurel Kays, TNC fire learning network manager, said she felt like she could try out new skills and risk making mistakes without worrying about being critiqued, or having her abilities being questioned. “When I’m burning with mostly men—even good, supportive ones—there is always this worry in the back of my head that a mistake or question will confirm that I don’t belong, that I’m not good enough to be there,” Kays said. That day everyone recognized that they were right where they belonged.
rofessional crews like Stirrat’s can take longleaf restoration only so far. One in seven forested acres in the Southeast is on public land like Carvers Creek State Park. The rest are scattered across millions of privately owned properties that see fire rarely, if ever. Owners have to navigate permits and liability, find skilled professionals, and fund burning—or learn to do it themselves. Most landowners don’t even know their property could support longleaf, much less that it needs regular fire to do so. “The majority of the forestland in the South, almost 90 percent, is privately owned,” says Jennifer Fawcett, a North Carolina State University prescribed fire expert. “That’s where the bulk of burning has to be.”
And that’s where Jesse Wimberley comes in. A fast-talking, self-described “leftist hippie” child of the South, he can banter with a rural backwoodsman with the same ease with which he writes government grants. His great-grandfather arrived in North Carolina’s Sandhills after the Civil War and built a cabin in present-day Moore County from longleaf. Wanting out of the rural South’s poverty and conservative culture, Wimberley attended graduate school out West, where he began protesting the military and the logging industry. “I was arrested at least once a month,” he says. In 1986 his mother told him to come home or she’d sell the family farm. He returned to find a mostly clear-cut forest. “It was a mess,” Wimberley recalls. “I was off saving the world and I lost my own forest.”
He moved into the old pine cabin and devoted himself to restoring the forests of his childhood. He planted 25,000 longleaf seedlings. Then came burning. He’d watched prescribed burns as a child and had overseen one in college. He started burning every few years to suppress his new pines’ competition, then looked to the thousands of surrounding acres that should have been growing healthy longleaf stands, but weren’t. Wimberley found that many other landowners were interested in burning, too, but had lost the generational knowledge. He started inviting neighbors to help him. Then, just as rural folks used to get together and raise barns, Wimberley started organizing landowners to burn one another’s property.
In 2015 Wimberley founded the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association (PBA). Much of its work involves community organizing: finding people who have longleaf, activating their inner conservationist, and helping them access funding from agencies like the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has millions of dollars to support burning but struggles to get the money to people who can use it. “NRCS can be very complicated and can lead to landowner frustration,” Wimberley says.
The Sandhills PBA focuses on finding public and private lands it can link together to expand forest stands and create wildlife corridors. Wimberley mapped locations where private land could bridge military land with the nearby Uwharrie National Forest, and Pat Dial’s property popped up.
When Dial, a member of the Lumbee Tribe who goes by Daystar, bought the parcel in the 1990s, she knew it needed fire. Her grandparents burned their woods in southeastern North Carolina, where she grew up, but when they died, the burning stopped; her parents worked day jobs and didn’t have time. Daystar didn’t know how to revive the practice, so her forest sat unburned for decades. Then Wimberley reached out. In March, he brought 17 people to conduct a burn. Daystar told them what fire means to the Lumbee. “Fire is a cleanse,” she says. “A handshake with the land.”
Wimberley’s community burns are a far cry from professional operations like those TNC runs. There was little Nomex, and some participants had scant experience. But Wimberley, a burner certified by the state’s Forest Service, has decades of experience wielding fire. He knows how it behaves in hot and cold weather, wind and still air. He says he’s never lost control of a burn. Working with a small team that included a Lumbee student trainee, Daystar helped light a fire on a hilltop. Under Wimberley’s guidance, for about two hours they steered it downhill toward a fire break they’d put in earlier, until the ground was clear and 10 acres of once-choked forest could breathe again.
Keith Tribble, another of Wimberley’s protégés, owns longleaf habitat almost by accident. He lives in Orlando, but on a visit to the Sandhills, an old Air Force buddy said a neighbor needed to sell their land urgently. Tribble made what he calls “a hideous offer” on a sandy, overgrown parcel of longleaf and loblolly trees; to his dismay, it was accepted. “Son of a bitch,” he recalls saying. “I’m a tree farmer now.”
In part to lower his taxes, Tribble commissioned a forest-management plan, and the forester who wrote it told him he needed to burn to reduce wildfire risk. Tribble couldn’t find anyone to teach him how until he met Wimberley, who brought over a crew. Now Tribble runs his own community burns, a development that thrills Wimberley. “The goal of the PBA is to have independent fire practitioners,” Wimberley says. “There’s about a dozen Keiths now.”
Tribble longs to see a woodpecker move in—the very thing that many landowners will do anything to avoid, including cut down mature longleaf trees, for fear of federal endangered species regulations. (The Safe Harbor program was created in 1995 to alleviate such concerns, but many landowners aren’t aware of it or don’t believe it will protect them, Wimberley says.) “We see that as the highest compliment,” he says, “to have a Red-cockaded Woodpecker say, ‘I like what you’ve done with the place.’ ”
So far, Wimberley has worked with 500 landowners and restored about 32,000 acres. “Before they started, there was really nothing like that in the longleaf area,” says Fawcett, who introduced Wimberley to the PBA concept. Since then a dozen groups have sprung up in the Southeast, each filling a gap in the patchwork of privately owned longleaf that desperately needs more fire.
little math clarifies the scale of the challenge of returning fire to longleaf ecosystems. It took the Carvers Creek crew more than a day, including pre-fire prep and post-fire monitoring, to burn 53 acres. That parcel will need to be burned again, ideally within a few years, to maintain healthy longleaf habitat. And there are thousands of parcels like it across the public lands of the Southeast. Adding a property to Wimberley’s network of private land is even trickier. It can take months or years to recruit a landowner, help them navigate bureaucracy, and find a forester—and that’s before a single burn. Each owner might have just a few dozen acres.
ALRI, a public-private collaboration, and the Longleaf Alliance, one of its founding members, have become amplifying forces growing these piecemeal efforts into landscape-scale change. They form the connective tissue among government agencies, conservation and industry groups, scientists, tribes, and landowners—sharing information and helping to create partnerships needed to plant more pines and burn more forests. It’s not cheap: Burning a 100-acre parcel can cost nearly $3,000, which a landowner needs to come up with every few years to keep their forest healthy. To that end, the Longleaf Alliance and other ALRI partners have shared costs with thousands of landowners. That support is critical, says Evans, whose longleaf restoration on hundreds of acres at Audubon South Carolina’s Beidler Forest and Silver Bluff Sanctuary was partially funded by the alliance.
Each local effort is a stream flowing into a widening river of restoration efforts. However, ALRI leaders know they will likely fall more than 2 million acres short of the goal they had set to increase longleaf by 8 million acres by 2025. Among other pressures, intensifying development in the Southern suburbs and exurbs has added millions of new residents in recent decades. The growth, which cuts deeply into forests, has dealt longleaf restoration a startling setback. “As quick as we’re planting, it’s also being taken away for construction or ag land or uses other than forestry,” Fawcett says.
ALRI will release a new goal and strategic plan this fall, in recognition that development, shortages of skilled burners, fire liability concerns, and other forces aligned against longleaf have proven tougher than anticipated. A key piece will be an economic strategy that encourages landowners to grow longleaf for profit as well as habitat improvement. Selling trees that need to be thinned for utility poles or needles for mulch can fetch more than loblolly grown for pulpwood, Denhof says.
The plan will also emphasize longleaf forests’ climate resilience. With their deep roots, the trees are naturally resistant to droughts, insects, disease, and wildfire. And they can better withstand the stronger storms forecast as the globe heats up, compared to shallow-rooted species like loblolly. The task now is to translate the benefits into enough dollars that people will be persuaded to keep longleaf around and plant more.
One thing is clear: If longleaf recovers, it will not just be agencies, funders, and high-level alliances that make it happen. It will owe just as much to those on the ground—dedicated professionals and ordinary people—who reach out and renew a handshake with the land.
This story originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue as “The Fire Starters.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.