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Prescribed Fire in Forests

Controlling Fire in Forests for Ecological Benefits


A controlled forest burn, a deliberate fire
Mint Images - Paul Edmondson/Mint Images RF/Getty Images

The very foundation of fire ecology is the premise that wildland fire is neither innately destructive nor in the best interest of every forest. Fire causes change and change has its own value. Certain forest biomes benefit more than others.

Change by fire is biologically necessary to maintain many healthy ecosystems in fire-loving plant communities and resource managers have learned to use fire to cause changes in plant and animal communities to meet their objectives. Varying fire timing, frequency, and intensity produces differing resource responses that create the correct changes for habitat manipulation.

A History of Fire

Native Americans used fire in virgin pine stands to provide better access, improve hunting, and ridding the land of undesirable species so they could farm. Early North American settlers observed this and continued the practice of using fire as a beneficial agent.

Destructive wildfire was also prevented by burning under safer conditions with the necessary tools for control. An appropriately "controlled" burn would reduce fuels that fed dangerous fires and assure that the next fire season would not bring destructive, property damaging fire.

But increased tree planting and an encroaching urban interface called attention the wildfire problem and led foresters to advocate the exclusion of all fire from the woods. This, in part, was due to the wood boom after WWII and the planting of millions of acres of susceptible trees that were vulnerable to fire in the first few years of establishment.

This "exclusion of fire" was not always an acceptable option - and this dramatically learned in Yellowstone National Park after decades of excluding fire. As knowledge accumulated, the use of "prescribed" fire grew and foresters now include fire as an appropriate tool in managing the forest.

Using Prescribed Fire

"Prescribed" burning is defined in A Guide for Prescribed Fire in Southern Forests as fire applied in a knowledgeable manner to forest fuels on a specific land area under selected weather conditions to accomplish predetermined, well-defined management objectives.

Few alternative treatments can compete with fire from the standpoint of effectiveness and cost. Chemicals are expensive and have associated environmental risks. Mechanical treatments have the same problems. Prescribed fire is much more affordable with much less risk to the habitat and destruction of site and soil quality.

Prescribed fire is a complex tool. Only a certified fire prescriptionist should be allowed to burn. Proper diagnosis and detailed planning is mandatory before every burn. He will also have the right tools. An incomplete assessment of any factor in a plan can lead to serious loss of property and life with serious liability questions to both the landowner and the one responsible for the burn.

This Series:

Prescribed Fire - A Photo Essay

Introduction to Wildland Fire

Fire Behavior and Weather

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