As the country comes off a record-breaking year for wildfires, more conservation groups are working to drastically reduce the number of fires and lessen the devastation they cause. In Maryland, one group is fighting fire with fire and helping land withstand the effects of climate change.
Natasha Whetzel oversees controlled burns for The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest environmental organizations in the world. For nearly ten years, forest lines in the mid-Atlantic region are where Whetzel is in command. "I've probably been on over, definitely over 200 burns," she says. "I've been loving every minute of it.”
After months of planning and closely monitoring weather conditions, Whetzel and her team singed roughly 20 acres in western Maryland. It’s work she says that's more critical than ever. "We know with climate change, conditions are going to change, species are going to migrate, and we need to ensure that we have healthy, resilient forests,” Whetzel says.
Whetzel says for her group, it's about stepping in where nature otherwise wouldn't. The burns also help prevent wildfires by treating the land before conditions are too dry.
The National Interagency Fire Center says nearly 59,000 wildfires burned through more than 10 million acres across the country last year, a significant uptick from 2019.
One of the differences between wildfires and controlled burns is the actual intensity of the fires themselves. Wildfires can get so hot that they kill everything, including fire-adapted plant species. Controlled burns do the opposite.
Ecologist Dr. Deborah Landau says controlled burns are restoring plant species that have been dormant for, in some cases, centuries. "Without fire, we're gonna lose a lot of these plants that have evolved with fire and require fire in order to regenerate,” she said.
The Nature Conservancy is working with both government and private groups to treat land in 72 different countries. So far, the group has worked to protect more than 125 million acres of land.