Forest Fires and TEOTWAWKI, by J.B. in Florida

Often in reading survivalist material, one comes across instructions on how to use fire in a camping or retreat setting for cooking, cleaning, sterilizing, and the like.  There is also quite a bit of information on how to protect ones self and belongings from the threat of fire, particularly wildfires.  Much of the information I have found is good information, and will be useful in a The End of the World as We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) scenario.  The purpose of this writing is not to further expound on those things most of us already know, but rather to use us to think about the other ways fire will impact our lives during TEOTWAWKI and look at some possibilities for actions that we should take now.

Without question, fire has played a vital role in shaping every ecosystem in existence on every land today.  That being said, it has to be true that fire, or the lack of fire, will continue to change and/or maintain the lands and ecosystems available into, and beyond TEOTWAWKI.

For centuries fires that started naturally, usually by lightning, and even fires started by native populations, burned unchecked across the landscape.  These fires were generally of low intensity because fire and the fuels they consumed were in harmony due to their long and virtually unhindered relationship.  Nature was in sync.  Around the turn of the 20th century, people began to see fire as a bad thing that was destroying timber, crops, and occasionally buildings.  With that mindset, and with the rapid advancement of technology, man’s capability to contain and control wildfire improved greatly, and we began to save the precious resources once doomed to destruction.  Unfortunately, it was a long time before it occurred to many people that fire is as necessary to the health and vitality of these areas as rain and sunlight.

Fast-forward a hundred years and the results of our extinguishment efforts are clear.  Many forests and wild lands have gone without God’s built-in cleaning for far too long, and now the fuels available to burn generate high-intensity, fast-burning fires that human ingenuity cannot seem to compete with.  I have managed wildfire on both coasts, and numerous places in between, and I want to assure you that this situation exists in many, if not most, of the wild lands, in every state in our Country today, and therefore, should be a consideration in locating and maintaining a retreat or GOOD location.
All wild lands are going to burn one way or another.  We can allow (or mimic, through the use of prescribed fire) naturally occurring fires to burn, or we can exclude fire from an area until the conditions finally come together to generate a conflagration that humans cannot control.  Choosing the former will go a long way toward maintaining these areas in a state where life will flourish.  These fires consume dead fallen debris which provides much needed nutrients back to the soil.  This in turn, encourages the growth of supple young plant life which provide browse and forage for different wildlife species, and opens up areas close to the ground for new growth of overstory species (of trees) to start over.

The exclusion of naturally occurring fire usually has adverse and devastating effects, which interrupt the “circle of life” for years, and sometimes changes the ecosystem forever.  Older, less healthy trees and shrubs are not “thinned out”, allowing the canopy to grow together and shade out nutritious young plant life.  This discourages wildlife browse, which allows the shrub layer and the fallen debris layer to become thicker and heavier.  Once fire does return, it burns with greater intensity and longer flame length, causing the entire tree canopy to be consumed, and large areas of soil to be sterilized, thereby inhibiting regeneration.

Certainly these illustrations are an oversimplification, but nonetheless they do provide an accurate representation of how these forested ecosystems can work.  And while the fire regime is not the only thing that affects forest health, I believe it is the most prominent aspect of these ecosystems which are affecting forest health in our country today.
So, what should you do when considering, building, or maintaining a retreat locale?  First of all, it is important to note that forests vary greatly from one area to the next.  Being a native of the southeast, my intuition and understanding of what a healthy forest looks like does not always apply in say, the northern Rockies.  I think you should choose a location based upon other factors that you have learned, and then begin to study and learn the fire regime for the ecosystem that you have chosen.  To do that, talk to the locals, the scientists or forestry personnel who work in the area, as well as the firefighters.  Farmers also have a good handle on the land and what is happening.  Pay particularly close attention to the old-timers who “grew up around here”.  Ask them these questions:

  • Have the forests changed in their lifetime?  Are they thick and overgrown?
  • Have the fires really gotten worse over the years, or is it just more “hyped” due to the increased population and the sensational media?
  • Is there more or less wildlife than years past?  (Again, this can be hyped by the media, but the local old-timers will have a good feel for the “truth”.)
  • Who owns most of the large tracts of land?  Do they ever log it?  Do they conduct prescribed burns or “controlled burns”?

Other sources of such information include libraries, museums, and town halls or community centers.  Often they will have old pictures.  Look at the background of those photos.  Do the natural areas look significantly different than they do now?
Once you have begun work on your locale, I believe as good stewards we are responsible to at least learn about the basic fire history and behavior in our area.  Those with tracts of land large enough should also learn how to use fire (prescribed fire) for the benefit of the land we use for our survival.  You may also need to get involved in the political process (as long as there is one to be involved in).  Currently, there are laws in many areas that prevent landowners from using fire in a useful and productive way.  While these laws are probably intended to provide for public safety, many of them are old and work against the public good in the long run by adversely affecting forest health.

Work to protect your property against loss due to wildfire.  You can have the best intentions in the world, but if you loose your home because you chose the wrong landscaping or building material, you will become a statistic that many will use to prevent responsible fire management. is a great resource to start looking for information on how to do this

Let me state now, unequivocally and for the record, fire in the wrong hands is extremely hazardous to life and property, and must be treated with the same respect one would give a loaded bazooka in a crowded church.  I am in no way advocating that everyone who owns or manages a rural piece of property go out and set it on fire.  Doing so, without the proper knowledge and safety measures, can cause loss of life and property in a disaster, for which you may be held wholly and personally liable in a court of law.  By the same token, allowing a natural fire to “burn unchecked across the landscape” without the proper knowledge and available resources can also have the same disastrous affects, and is illegal in some areas.

For those of you who believe, as I do, that the stuff will most certainly one day hit the fan, and are planning to make it “out here”, I assure you that these are important issues.  It cannot be overstated that if you intend to live off of the land, then the health and productivity of that land is vital.  Although done with the best of intentions, we have gone a long way to making our forests unhealthy through fire exclusion.  Continue to do so after the SHTF, and your once safe and beautiful homestead, could quite easily become a burned-out, barren wasteland that can no longer sustain you and yours.

JWR Adds: The sound practice of tree clearing to establish “defensible space” has been previously discussed in SurvivalBlog. See, for example, this 2007 article: From the Memsahib: Developing Wildfire Defensive Space at Your Home or Retreat. Don’t just think about it, get out you chainsaw and accomplish it!