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The Top Five Reasons Southerners Love Prescribed Fire

Frank Sorrells
Chief of Forest Protection
Georgia Forestry Commission
Man bringing forest.

With most forestland in the southeastern United States under private ownership – equal in size to nearly 160 million football fields – our southern landowners have collectively taken on the monumental task of keeping the South’s forests healthy and economically viable. For these folks, it’s not just about owning property, it’s about taking good care of our prized natural resources, while providing for family and community, and cultivating a legacy of stewardship.

To be successful, we know that southern land managers must employ a range of forest management tools – which often includes safe and thoughtful application of prescribed fire, also known as “good fire.” In fact, the southeastern United States alone conducts approximately 6 million acres of prescribed fires annually – which represents more acres of prescribed fire than the rest of the nation combined (in Georgia alone, we treat over 1 million acres with prescribed fire annually).

So why are we Southerners so passionate about prescribed fire?

1. It helps keep people, homes and natural resources safe.

Prescribed fire is one of the most efficient and low-cost ways to reduce wildfire risk in the South. By regularly conducting low-grade prescribed fires, which mimic nature, the buildup of flammable vegetation and overgrowth is reduced and kept at bay. As a result, future wildfires that come through after a prescribed burn are likely to be smaller, easier to control and less dangerous. This is especially important for areas where homes and businesses exist near nature, otherwise known as the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). In Georgia, we have identified more than 3,350 WUI communities. These communities range from just a few residents to hundreds of people living in areas where forests and flammable vegetation intermix with homes and businesses. By keeping wildfires manageable in critical at-risk areas, our wildland firefighters can better protect life and property, and do so in safer conditions.

2. It’s an ancient tradition.

Prescribed fire is an ancient art. Thousands of years ago, long before European settlers arrived in North America, Indigenous people used fire regularly to manage southern pine ecosystems from Texas east to Florida. Since then, farmers, ranchers and land managers throughout history have used prescribed fire to care for their lands. Carrying on the tradition of good fire is key to maintaining its benefits into the future. It is a personal and professional obligation for me, and many others in the wildland fire and forestry professions, to pass down the knowledge and understanding of prescribed fire by mentoring and training the next generation. In doing so, we successfully pass the torch.

3. It’s science-based.

Before houses were built and people roamed the land, low-grade lightning fires naturally cleared overgrowth and kept forests healthy without human interference. With rising populations, however, it is in land managers’ hands to ensure forests receive needed care through the regular application of good fire in a controlled setting. Experienced land managers follow science-based principles, using prescribed fire as a safe way to restore natural fire cycles. Prescribed burn management is highly technical, carefully timed and managed, requiring expertise in weather patterns, fire behavior, suppression techniques and environmental impacts.

4. It makes for healthy, gorgeous forests.

In addition to lowering the risk of catastrophic wildfire, the introduction of good fire back into the landscape will yield a multitude of benefits. For instance, prescribed fire will help cut down on excess overgrowth while depositing nutrients back into the soil, creating open views brimming with flowering annuals and biennials. This beauty, though, is more than just skin deep – prescribed fire yields forest health benefits by promoting native species and establishing tree seedlings, controlling competing vegetation, and combatting forest pests and invasive plant species. For example, prescribed fire can aid regeneration of southern pines by creating seedbeds for proper germination.

5. It’s good for wildlife.

Many southern habitats are home to wild animals that have been fire-adapted for millennia. Fire is a natural part of their existence and most know exactly how to stay safe during prescribed burns. Once an area has been successfully treated with prescribed fire, game bird broods, rabbits and ground-feeding songbirds will return to open conditions at ground level for travel, loafing and feeding, while many birds, mammals and reptiles will return to renewed groundcover that provides forage, soft mast and seed. Over the course of my 41-year career, I have witnessed many thousands of acres of prescribed fire and the results have been clear. Lands which lacked the capacity to support viable wildlife populations were transformed. Wild turkeys have become common and the number of whitetail deer has increased. Even on a relatively small tract of forest land which I personally hunt, I’ve seen a noticeable increase in wildlife and overall forest health since good fire was reintroduced about seven years ago.

As the South continues to lean on private landowners to champion forest conservation, state forestry agencies, local governments, municipalities and residents must continue to support prescribed fire – a pillar of forest conservation and protection in the South. To learn more about the role of prescribed fire in southern forests, visit GoodFires.org.