We’ve been hearing incessantly about hugging Smokey Bear on his 70th anniversary. I want to shoot Smokey and turn him into a bear rug. He is one of the reasons we have problems with ticks in the Eastern U.S. Contrary to the myths created by Thoreau and other “naturalist” writers, thick forests were largely a European invention. The Native Americans used fire extensively to manage their surroundings. Fires were intentionally set to clear forests of underbrush for many reasons, including stimulating new growth that attracted animals, making hunting easier. Anecdotally, they used fire to reduce blackfly, mosquito, and tick densities. Fire is still used in Southern states to control Lone Star ticks; burning every three years greatly reduces, if not eliminates, tick infestations. The thick understory and duff that accumulate without forest fires promote the survival of ticks, which are sensitive to desiccation. Even though forest ecologists have recognized the natural benefit of regular fire cycles, and indeed local organizations such as the Nature Conservancy try to use fire to restore some of our historical New England plants and habitats suppressed by the unnatural undergrowth, controlled burns are administratively difficult and expensive to undertake … largely because we all grow up with that stupid “Only you can prevent forest fires.” (“Only you can prevent wildfires,” the recent version of the propaganda, is not much better; Smokey caused the problem that we have with vast amounts of fuel in the forests, which we still allow to accumulate, increasing the probability of destructive fires.) Admittedly, the fact that there are very expensive homes in the brush doesn’t help those of us who want an expanded use of fire. However, greater public support for the safe use of fire to manage habitat could benefit both our landscape and public health.
Visit the M.V. Tick Borne Disease Initiative web site, sponsored by the Island-wide boards of health (mvboh.org), for tips on prevention. Sam Telford is professor of infectious disease and global health at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.