Firefighters have battled blazes on nearly 4 million acres of public and private land so far this year -- and federal officials are on track to deliberately burn 2.5 million more.
This is not a case of rampant arson.
Federal and state officials, joined by some environmentalists and academics, increasingly advocate deliberately setting fires in wild areas to restore ecosystems and prevent wildfires from raging out of control. Fires are part of the natural life cycle of forests, they argue, and help maintain a broader diversity of habitats for wildlife. After decades of fire suppression and Smokey Bear, the government now embraces "prescribed fire" as a key tool in managing the nation's forests.
The policy began under President Bill Clinton and has accelerated under President Bush, but as it has grown, so has the controversy it inspires. Some community activists complain that prescribed fires pollute the air and damage valuable hardwoods, and logging companies say the strategy deprives them of valuable timber. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is calling on the Forest Service to reexamine the impact on logging, and environmentalists are divided on the issue.
"We've lost the consensus, there's no question about that," said former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, who helped put out forest fires as a high school student and pushed for prescribed burning under the Clinton administration.
The Forest Service -- which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month -- started quashing fires five years after its inception, after wildfires burned more than 3 million acres in two days in Idaho and Montana and killed nearly 100 people. In 1935, the Service adopted a national "10 a.m." policy, demanding its firefighters contain every fire by 10 a.m. the day after they learned of it. Smokey Bear debuted nine years later, telling Americans, "Only you can prevent forest fires."
But by the mid-1990s, the federal government had begun to rethink that policy. Five years ago, it adopted a national fire plan that called for treating 40 million acres of brush and dense forest by 2010 through logging and burning.
Forest managers prefer prescribed burns to "mechanical thinning" for several reasons. Prescribed burns are much cheaper than thinning, costing $13 to $28 an acre, by some estimates. Foresters light them by hand or set them from a helicopter by injecting a few drops of antifreeze into small plastic spheres containing potassium permanganate powder, which ignites several seconds after the balls hit the ground.
Officials now aim to return forests back to a cycle in which fires routinely sweep through, said Marc Rounsaville, the Forest Service's deputy director for fire and aviation.
"Just like rain, like snow, it's part of the natural system," Rounsaville said. "It's probably the number one management tool in the South, and we're working hard in the rest of the country to put it into place. . . . Do we get it right every day? No, I won't lie to you. But we're getting better at it, we're getting smarter at it."
Although the number of federally prescribed burns has more than doubled since fiscal 2000, many advocates say it is still not enough. Kevin Hiers, who manages fire use in Georgia and Alabama for the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization, said the group has burned 11,000 acres in Georgia this year -- twice as many as last year -- and he would like to double that again next year.
"We're on an exponential rise," said Hiers, whose group works with Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. After a forest fire, he said, "the biodiversity is absolutely astonishing. Something clicks, and you understand how an ecosystem interacts with burning in a fundamental way."
Shan Cammack, a wildlife biologist at the state agency, is a fire enthusiast. Her cell phone cover features jagged red and orange flames against a yellow background, and the word "Ember" stretches across the hood of her agency truck.
"The habitat's just not there, and the only way to get it back is through fire," Cammack said.
Clad head to toe in olive-green, fire-resistant gear, she came to the privately owned Greenwood Plantation in southern Georgia this month to enlist more converts.
The plantation has reaped the benefits of regular forest fires for decades. The 5,200-acre longleaf pine forest has soaring green trees that provide a canopy for wildlife below, along with habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The woods resemble a scene described by local writer Janisse Ray in her 1999 book, "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood": "The trees are so well spaced that their limbs seldom touch and sunlight streams between and within them."
Surveying the scene from a helicopter 25 feet above the treetops, Hiers pointed out white sap running down the pines, a sign that the woodpeckers are thriving.
"You want the fire to burn, but you don't want it to be too intense," he said.
But while much of the South boasts what the conservancy's national fire training coordinator Sam Lindblom calls "a culture of fire," some activists and lawmakers question the booming practice.
Burns, the Montana senator, inserted language into the Interior Department's 2006 spending bill indicating that his subcommittee "is concerned that prescribed burning treatments may not always be compatible with the need to better utilize commercially valuable biomass products." While Burns is not seeking to ban the practice, he said, "plain old, everyday-vanilla common sense tells you that the product they're burning up could be used."
On a local level, residents in Georgia and elsewhere complain that smoke from fires worsens air pollution. Officials now strictly regulate prescribed burns around Georgia's metropolitan areas.
Jerry Williams, who monitors Arkansas's Ouachita and Ozark national forests as vice chairman of the Ouachita Watch League, an environmental and citizens' coalition, said the smoke from prescribed burns drifts for miles. In addition, he said, these fires tend to promote pine growth but reduce the number of local hardwoods.
"You don't have the fire, but you have the smoke," Williams said, adding that federal authorities now burn seven times more acreage than in 1986 and have plans to nearly double that amount.
But the Forest Service's Rounsaville said fire smoke pales in comparison with pollution from automobiles and power plants, and the agency mostly burns small trees that have little commercial value. Moreover, he said, ecologists at places such as the Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee have documented for years the advantages of prescribed burns. After suppressing fire on one experimental 23-acre plot for nearly 40 years, plant diversity dropped nearly 90 percent and red-cockaded woodpeckers vanished.
When it comes to prescribed burns, said Tall Timbers' fire ecologist Kevin Robertson, "in almost every situation we can think of, it's being underutilized."
But Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University, said it is no simple matter to reintroduce fire to a landscape that has been reshaped by people and development.
"Suddenly, there are all sorts of public health, public safety and environmental problems with putting fire back in the forest," he said. "It's a long, hard slog."
Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.