Faces from the Past


Chapman called 'Father of controlled burning'

By James Barnett
Journal Correspondent

The history of fire in southern forests is a long and vexing one. Firing the woods has been a common practice in the South. Some described it as natural as honking of migrating geese or appearance of crimson foliage on sweet gums. American Indians had long used fire to maintain open forests to facilitate hunting and even used fire to drive deer through openings where they were more easily harvested.

Settlers used fire to clear land and to "green up" the grass in the spring to provide new growth for their grazing animals. Such practices were particularly common on the cut-over forest land that provided open range for their cattle. However, early foresters found need to control fires if reforestation efforts were to be successful. One of the first specific forest practices to be undertaken in the South had to do with fire protection. The first large-scale attempts to control fire were on national forests.

The American Forestry Association awakened much interest in early fire protection in 1929 by sending a caravan of trucks into the South to begin a 3-year crusade for fire protection. Equipped with moving pictures and literature, the trucks roved the hinterlands in several states where fire problems were severe. Known as the "Dixie Crusaders", these members of fire prevention caravans traveled 300,000 miles through the Deep South, holding rallies, distributing pamphlets, and showing self-produced movies to some three million people. This effort was particularly effective because motion pictures were shown in areas where they were not generally available.

Dr. John F. Shea, a psychologist, was hired by the Forest Service to study why locals set fires. He reported at the time that many of the people craved excitement in "an environment otherwise barren of emotional outlets". Maybe this was why Dixie Crusaders were successful, their effort created a lot of interest because it was so unique for its time.

Fire protection became a moral crusade and early Forest Service researchers were generally proponents for complete control of fire. However, based on his research with the Urania Lumber Company, H.H. Chapman became a proponent of controlled use of fire as a means of controlling wildfires and, more importantly, stimulating forest regeneration of southern pines. In a 1912 article, Chapman argued that to keep fire entirely out of southern pine lands might result in complete destruction of the forests. Later, in 1926, he issued his famous Yale University School of Forestry Bulletin 16 which caused controversy among southern foresters because he called for the use of fire in longleaf pine regeneration.

Dr. Chapman, who brought the Yale University School of Forestry seniors to Urania several months a year for decades, became a champion of controlled burning. He performed research demonstrating that southern pines rely on fire to suppress hardwood competitors, reduce hazardous fuel buildup, and control brown-spot disease of longleaf pine. Chapman stoutly defended his position in letters published in the Journal of Forestry. For a number of years, Forest Service foresters rebutted his position.

In 1928, Phil Wakeley and others of the Southern Forest Experiment Station began a large study to evaluate Chapman's contentions. With one exception, they found that Chapman's position was correct. They did conclude that burning did not protect longleaf seedlings from brown-spot needle disease of longleaf pine. Gradually, foresters accepted Chapman's conclusions and became advocates of controlled or prescribed burning.

Chapman was a charismatic, but forceful character. He published more than 20 papers between 1909 and the early 1940s dealing with southern pines and their relationship to fire. His work showed that most winter fires do not kill all longleaf pine seedlings; but they helped establish pine stands, suppress pine and other hardwood competitors, and reduce hazardous fuel accumulations. Chapman recommended use of fire in longleaf pine every three years. For his pioneering work, he has been termed the "father of controlled burning for silvicultural purposes".

(Ed Kerr's 1958 "History of Forestry in Louisiana" was used a as resource for this article)