Prescribed Fire in the South
Prescribed fire is a safe way to restore a natural process, ensure ecosystem health and resiliency, and reduce wildfire risk.
Prescribed fire refers to the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions that help restore health and resiliency to fire-dependent ecosystems and landscapes.
Prescribed fire reintroduces and restores the natural process and the beneficial effects of periodic fire into an ecosystem by yielding the kinds of vegetation and resilient landscapes we want, and reducing the hazard of catastrophic wildfire caused by excessive fuel buildup.
Although there have been regional variations across the United States, fire has been used as a management tool throughout history.
Forest management practices such as thinning and prescribed burning create healthier, more productive forests. Overcrowded trees often struggle to survive, weakening them against insects or disease. Thinning competing vegetation allows remaining trees to grow faster and be more resistant to pests.
In the South, prescribed fire has been used to maintain oak and pine savannas, clear brush, create wildlife habitat, clear land for agriculture, control pests and improve livestock grazing.
Prescribed fire is a complex management tool and should be used only with the utmost care under controlled conditions.
Prescribed fire is a carefully planned and controlled operation. It has specific objectives, specific parameters and a meticulously carried-out plan conducted and monitored by trained personnel. Prescribed fire adheres to a strict burn plan that includes:
- a statement of the burn’s objectives—what results are intended by burning
- requirements for weather conditions before and during the burn
- considerations for smoke dispersal
- contingency plans in case the fire escapes
- safety requirements
Notifying neighbors, fire departments and local law enforcement officials should always be part of a prescribed burn plan. A copy of the burn plan should also be shared with the local fire department or other designated authorities.
Dense vegetation can create intense fires that burn quickly and endanger nearby communities.
By safely reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, encouraging the new growth of native vegetation, and maintaining the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire, prescribed burning helps reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on our lands and surrounding communities. Wildfires that burn in areas where fuels have been reduced by prescribed fire cause less damage and are much easier to control.
Prescribed fire, when utilized judiciously can have the biggest impact on protecting our communities and our ecosystems from catastrophic wildfire. Just like landowners are responsible for managing their lands, homeowners have a responsibility to manage their property and homes in a way that is fire-resistant and compatible with the fire-dependent ecosystems in which we reside.
State forestry agencies work with community leaders to plan and implement community wildfire preparedness plans and programs to help withstand wildfire and to conduct wildfire mitigation work, including the use of prescribed fire in identified high-risk areas.
Prescribed fire helps protect firefighters. Land that has been treated with prescribed fire slows future wildfire growth, thereby assisting wildlland firefighters as they work to protect communities, property and infrastructure.
There are many factors that that determine whether fire will have beneficial or adverse effects on soil. Frequency, duration and intensity of the fire are just a few.
Fire is a natural disturbance, but it also rejuvenates the habitat. It returns the nutrients that are tied up in the vegetation, it returns that material to the soil, and you get new regrowth and lush vegetation that’s beneficial for wildlife and keeps the habitat healthy over the long term. The nutrients released in fires are almost all held and used at the site by plant roots, micro-organisms and the soil.
Too hot a fire can cause excessive nutrient loss when all fuels are consumed and when soil organisms and plant roots are killed.
Water Quantity & Quality
Prescribed burning increases the quantity of water by removing thick shrubs and overgrown vegetation. With fewer plants absorbing water, streams are fuller, benefiting other plants and animals.
Prescribed burning also helps maintain clean drinking water and reduces the amount of moisture that evaporates from plants into the air. This increases the quantity and improves the quality of water soaking into the ground, replenishing aquifers.
Historically, even wetland areas burned in times of dry weather or when high winds carried flames over wet ground and the water surface. Today, prescribed fires in wetlands are an important tool for controlling weeds.
Prescribed burning increases vegetative diversity and attracts a wider variety of birds and animals. It also helps perpetuate many endangered plant species.
Manages Competing Vegetation
Depending upon the desired composition and diversity of the forest or land, the judicious use of prescribed fire can manage competition for water, nutrients and growing space.
Promotes Native Vegetation
Use of prescribed fire encourages new growth of native vegetation and maintains the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire.
Improves Wildlife Habitat
Prescribed burning stimulates seed germination of many species and provides open conditions at ground level for travel, loafing and feeding by game bird broods, rabbits and ground-feeding songbirds. The responding ground cover provides forage, soft mast and seed eaten by many birds, mammals and reptiles. Prescribed burning also influences the composition and structure of cover available for wildlife.
Prescribed fire is highly recommended for wildlife habitat management where loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf or slash pine is the primary over story species. Periodic fire is beneficial for understory species that provide browse for wildlife.
For example, whitetail deer thrive after fire. In habitats where fire has been suppressed over a long period of time, the vegetation can eventually grow high and out of reach for a deer. After a fire, the vegetation is brought back down to ground level within reach and is more nutritious. In southern grassland habitats, prairieland chickens and quail thrive in post-fire environments, which provide a variety of food and attract various insects that they require.
Controls insects and diseases
Prescribed fire helps reduce some fungal diseases such as root rot since it affects the makeup of the forest floor, most likely by destroying some of the fruiting bodies and cauterizing tree stumps. Prescribed fire is also the most effective and practical means of controlling brown spot disease in longleaf pine seedlings and cone insects such as the white pine cone beetle.
Prescribed fire helps produce palatable and nutritious forage and reduces noxious weed competition for domestic livestock in timbered and open range.
The immediate plant response to prescribed fire is an increase in palatability, quality, quantity and availability of grasses. Dead material, low in nutrient values, is removed while new growth, high in protein, phosphorous and calcium becomes readily available in the spring.
Promotes Regeneration of Timber
Prescribed fire is useful when regenerating southern pines. On open sites, prescribed fire can expose mineral soil and control competing vegetation until seedlings become established.
Improves Access and Safety for Timber Operations
Burning underbrush prior to the sale of forest products improves the efficiency of cruising, timber marking, and harvesting. Removing accumulated material before harvesting also provides greater safety for timber markers and loggers due to better visibility and less underbrush.
The reduced amount of fuel helps offset the greater risk of wildfire during harvesting. The improved visibility and accessibility often increase the stumpage value of the products.
Prescribed fire enhances aesthetic values by increasing occurrence and visibility of flowering annuals and biennials. In a forest, it also reduces understory buildup, making tree stands more transparent and enhances the scenic qualities of the forest. Prescribed fire also maintains open spaces for vistas.
Prescribed fire can create open areas, trails and road access that can provide recreation and enhance natural beauty. Well-managed forests increase opportunities to enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, hunting, fishing and bird watching. Observing and connecting with nature can increase mental, physical and emotional well-being. Studies show that activities such as a walk in the woods can provide a boost to the immune system that lasts two or three days.
There are ways to monitor and lessen the impact of smoke from prescribed burns.
Smoke from prescribed burning is one of the greatest single factors causing public concern. The amount of smoke emitted and its dispersal are affected by how and when the burn is conducted.
Most southern states have either voluntary or mandatory smoke management guidelines for planning a prescribed burn. Many states also conduct smoke management workshops for prescribed burners. When planning a prescribed fire, burn managers will:
- Plot the anticipated direction of the smoke plume
- Identify and consider standard and critical smoke-sensitive areas
- Determine the impact the fuel type may have on smoke production
- Take steps to minimize risk
Occasional and brief exposure to low concentrations of drift smoke is more temporary inconvenience than health problem. However, exposure to an abundance of smoke could have negative short and long-term health effects such as eye and respiratory system irritation. High concentrations of smoke near homes of people with respiratory illnesses or near health-care facilities also can be problematic. As can burning noxious plants such as poison ivy in the smoke—possibly causing skin rashes and respiratory system irritations.
Prescribed burn practitioners take steps to mitigate smoke impacts to communities before, during and after a prescribed burn has been conducted. Although smoke from prescribed fire may produce an unwelcome haze from time to time, prescribed fire benefits overall air quality by reducing the potential for highly dangerous smoke impacts from otherwise uncontrolled wildfires.
With prescribed burning, the principal concerns for water are runoff and increases in sediment, nitrate and heavy metal content. When surface runoff increases after burning, it may carry suspended soil particles, dissolved inorganic nutrients and other materials into adjacent streams and lakes, thus reducing water quality. Prescribed fires are usually not severe so these effects seldom occur in the South. On steep terrain, however, if post-fire storms deliver large amounts of precipitation or short-duration, high-intensity rainfalls, accelerated erosion and runoff can occur. Generally, however, a properly planned prescribed burn (which take runoff potential into account) will not adversely affect either the quality or quantity of ground or surface water.
Studies show that public perception regarding prescribed fire are similar to the perceptions of wildfire. This misperception can be countered with information, education, standardized practitioner certification, consistently-successful burns and public policy conducive to safe, effective burning practices.
Policy should encourage prescribed fire as a management tool and a protective measure against wildfire risk while providing safety standards and guidelines.
Liability varies from state to state. Southern states are known as either strict liability states or negligence states.
- Being a strict liability state means that if you start the prescribed fire and it escapes, you —the landowner—are civilly liable for actual damages.
- Being a negligence state means the one setting the fire is presumed innocent if the fire escapes. The liability for an escaped fire is placed on the certified prescribed burn manager (not the hiring landowner).
There are standards for prescribed burn manager certification and laws that set the minimum of liability insurance required.
Most insurance policies will be in effect for the majority of private burns with legitimate objectives. Insurance may vary by state and local laws, but no matter where you are in the South, the question of liability can be mitigated by appropriate planning and timing.
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The Guidebook for Prescribed Burning in the Southern Region is designed to help prescribed burners of all experience levels set and meet their goals.
Prescribed Fire webpage at SmokeyBear.com
A Guide for Prescribed Fire in Southern Forests by the Bugwood Network
The National Interagency Prescribed Fire Training Center (NIPFTC) offers unique programs that blend prescribed burning experience with a flexible curriculum covering foundational topics for prescribed fire practitioners and fire and fuels managers.
The Southern Fire Exchange (SFE) is a fire science delivery program in the Southeast, funded by the Joint Fire Science Program.