A history of fire in the Appalachians
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 areas for wildlife and made traveling 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 ridge tops open and sunny, which increased wild blueberry crops and also provided benefits for grazing livestock and game.
However, 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 over the past 80-100 years has 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 are having trouble regenerating in the now closed canopy conditions.