By Jeff Dennis
The use of prescribed fire is the most cost effective landscape scale management tool available, but variables can dictate how and when to apply it. Too wet and fuels won’t burn, too dry and you risk tree damage or wildfire, so reading the current forest conditions is how managers begin planning a controlled burn.
Keeping parts of the forest in the earliest stages of succession can become an obsession for some, and these prescribed fire managers can’t wait for the annual chance to burn their woods and watch as the habitat evolves. A regular regime of fire educates us on how a blackened landscape is quickly reborn with green growth in Spring.
Plowing firebreaks around an entire property makes good sense, but one should also consider plowing some inner firebreaks in order to break up the property into smaller burn units. These smaller units allow more options on days when the wind is not right for one tract, but the temperature and humidity is good for burning on another adjacent piece.
Multiple firebreaks allow fire keepers to rotate which tracts are burned each year, creating a mosaic of habitats which biologists have cited as a solid practice to benefit wildlife. Year-round benefits from firebreaks include property access and food plot potential.
Setting a controlled fire, called a back fire, to run into a steady breeze is one of the surest methods to burn woodlands in a safe manner. A backing fire burns slow and is thus cooler than any other fire such as flanking fire or a head fire. A cool fire burns evenly through the woods without flaring up the kind of temperatures that can damage trees.
Limiting liability is the name of the game in controlled burning when it comes to the smoke produced from a prescribed fire. Strong winds aloft are needed to disperse the smoke into the atmosphere without causing any smoked-in conditions where people live or across roadways. Smoke liability is the single greatest threat to the expansion of prescribed fire.
Can you burn through a hardwood stand? The answer is yes. Burning through hardwood bottomlands is not as popular as burning through piney woods, since hardwoods are more susceptible to damage from the heat of a prescribed fire.
For pines trees, it matters which variety you are burning. Longleaf pine is all but immune to prescribed fire after one year of age. Shortleaf, loblolly and slash pines can all be killed by fire if burned too young, but they become much more hearty with age.
The appearance of a pine stand after successive burns creates a park-like appearance and an open understory. A major benefit is the reduction of fuel loads and much less chance of wildfire all year long.
Joining a prescribed fire association can translate into seeing a prescribed fire up close, and viewing woodlands at different stages of management. It is always helpful to visit places using prescribed fire over the years to view the long-term results.
Most states have prescribed fire council organizations, and their respective forestry operations raise awareness about controlled burning assistance. Conservation groups like The Longleaf Alliance and Tall Timbers hold workshops for the public across the Southeast.
Writing a burn plan for any prescribed fire takes place ahead of the event, and can be a key to success. And after any prescribed fire, keep records of the effects seen and utilize that information to prepare for future controlled burning. A suite of wildlife and native species should benefit from habitat management involving prescribed fire, increasing the recreational benefits for everyone.
The author’s Lowcountry Outdoors blog is celebrating a tenth anniversary in 2019.
Photo Credit – Jeff Dennis
A fire manager uses a drip torch to ignite a prescribed fire.