Backing Fire

Wade Tract, Arcadia Plantation, Thomasville, Georgia
Oil on canvas
48 x 72 in. (121.9 x 182.9 cm)

Private collection

What moments before was a very smoky view of a flanking fire has briefly cleared as the shifting wind now pushes the smoke into the “black,” or already burned area of the Wade Tract, a private property near Thomasville, Georgia. The flame front, now backing into the wind, progresses more slowly into the “green,” or unburned fuels.

The opposite effect can be seen in Heading Fire, a view on the same day, but with the wind pushing the prescribed fire forward.

To an artist fascinated by the ecological processes of the pre-European settlement landscape, particularly that of wildland fire, the old growth forest of the Wade Tract is paradise. It was in this region—called the Red Hills—that previously unmanaged woods-burning was purposefully harnessed in the early twentieth century by wildlife biologist Herbert Stoddard to successfully maintain populations of Bobwhite quail. For the Wade Tract, and also for the Big Woods of the nearby Greenwood Ecological Reserve, this first scientific awakening to the use of prescribed fire for ecological management has allowed the original condition of these fire-dependent forests to persist to this day. That unfortunately was not the case for most other fire-adapted environments in the United States, which at the time had no one to defend them against overzealous fire-suppression policies. Because of that, the Wade Tract and the Big Woods stand as very rare examples of the continent’s original fire-adapted ecosystems.

With permission from the Wade Tract’s owners, and in cooperation with the burn team from Tall Timbers Research Station, I’ve participated in, and painted, a handful of burns at the site. Conducted during the growing season to better approximate the effects of historic lightning-caused fires, the burns readily consumed the previous year’s accumulated pine straw and ground layer flora, while killing back fire-intolerant hardwoods. Without fire, opportunistic hardwoods like water oak and sweetgum would eventually shade out the highly diverse flora of the ground layer—herbaceous plants like wiregrass and liatris that resprout readily after a fire. The longleaf pine trees are generally unaffected by the flames, protected as they are by thick bark and a suite of fire-adapted growth strategies. Longleaf seedlings that germinate in the fire-exposed mineral soil, will lay low for a few years in a fire resistant “grass stage”, developing a strong tap root that enables them to quickly shoot upward in a “rocket stage” that places their growing tip above the reach of the flames. Meanwhile, the canopy trees continually supply the forest floor with highly combustible pine needles, ensuring regular reignition. These adaptations are why they call this the “fire forest.” To be inside it during a prescribed fire, painting and photographing while the canopy above sighs and sways in a strong spring breeze, is a sublime experience that’s a challenge to adequately convey in either words or paint.


Studio painting, November 2013, based on photographs from April 24, 2011.

Exhibition History