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Earth Sense: Wildfires spoil romance of camping in woods
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The lingering drought in North Georgia isn’t just impacting our water supply. It also spoils some of the romance involved in camping. Specifically, we can’t sit at a campfire in the evening, enjoying its light and warmth after a day hike.

On Oct. 28, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources had to impose restrictions on the use of campfires in wildlife management areas. The risk of a campfire getting out of control and spreading in the dry fuel accumulated on the forest floor is too high, and therefore the ban directs WMA visitors to “refrain from building, maintaining, attending or using a fire or campfire.”

The situation in North Carolina, where numerous blazes sent smoke drifting as far away as Atlanta, is plenty of warning. Last week, the state’s forest service reported a total of 175 fires since the beginning of the month. In Georgia, the Rough Ridge fire was still in progress, burning through 10,000 acres about 12 miles west of Blue Ridge. This, too, contributed to the smoky haze enveloping the greater Atlanta area.

Statistics about the causes of the fires, on the ncforestservice.gov website, paint an interesting picture. At the top of the list is “debris burning,” which has been a main factor since the 1970s, being responsible for a third to about half of all the wildfires.

Smoking in the woods used to be a considerable problem, but has declined from 14 percent to 2 percent as a fire starter. Railroads are no longer the culprit they used to be. That’s not surprising, because today’s diesel engines don’t throw out burning chunks of coal, as their steam-driven predecessors used to do.

It speaks in favor of outdoor enthusiasts that the proportion of fires caused by camping has been virtually unchanged in more than 40 years, remaining near just 1 out of 100.

Naturally occurring wildfires, caused by lightning, clear dead debris from the forest floor and make room for fresh growth. Such fires are desirable for the forest, and they don’t tend to kill adult trees.

But as the figures show, only 2-4 percent of the blazes are lightning-induced. Human causes are in an overwhelming majority, including arson, machinery use, kids playing with matches, and more. Most of these tend to be near towns and homes, which is why firefighters risk life and limb in the battle to extinguish them.  

 

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.


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