Have you ever noticed a field or woodlands floor that’s been burned? What’s your reaction? Probably: “Oh no! That’s not good!”
Fortunately, not all wildfires are bad. Prescribed fires, or prescribed burns, benefit the environment in many ways. In fact, once-burned areas usually resprout into lush plants within weeks, which benefits many birds and animals.
We spoke with Joe Lacefield, a private-lands wildlife biologist in Kentucky; and Tyler Mosteller, a wildlife biologist and land-management specialist in Florida’s St. Johns River Water Management District, to learn more about prescribed burns.
What’s a prescribed fire?
Prescribed fires are controlled fires set by well-trained people to help with farming, prairie-restoration and forest-management projects. These fires are cost-effective, land-management tools that help wildlife and wild places.
They can be conducted by two to three people on small tracts of land, or crews of 20 or more using horses, vehicles or helicopters on large-scale burns of 1,000-plus acres. The number of people needed depends on the burn’s size and complexity.
How do burns help the environment?
Prescribed fires help …
- Reduce flammable fuels. These fuels include dead grasses, fallen trees, leaf litter and other organic buildup. Periodic fires eliminate forest fuels, reducing the risk of larger, more dangerous and destructive wildfires.
- Control invasive species. These living organisms aren’t native to an ecosystem. They often harm the environment, grow and reproduce quickly, and suppress native plants and animals. Fires can kill some invasive species while promoting growth of native plants, which often benefit from periodic burns.
- Maintain natural stages of forest succession, which refers to a forest’s stages of life. Early-successional habitat consists of ground blanketed with herbs, plants and grasses. Midsuccessional habitats produce shrubs and small trees, aka the midstory. Mature forests feature late-successional habitat, which includes fully grown trees and a dense canopy or overstory. Fire helps suppress the shrub layer, thin the midstory, and increase the amount of sunlight hitting the ground. Those factors open the area for new growth, which generates fresh food and openings for wildlife.
- Increase biodiversity, which means diverse plants and animals for the habitat. Different stages of forest succession benefit different birds and wildlife species. Ruffed grouse and white-tailed deer require early-successional habitats to flourish. Fires help balance ecosystems, which leads to good water quality, and more varied plant and animal communities.
By enhancing habitats and restoring balance to ecosystems, fires generally lead to healthier wildlife populations and better hunting opportunities.
What are ideal burn conditions?
Mosteller has 10 years of experience with prescribed fires, and said ideal burning conditions depend on the burn’s objectives, location and weather.
“If you want to reduce fuel loading in an area that hasn’t seen fire for many years, you want to burn it in the dormant season [winter] when it’s easier to keep fire intensity low and save your overstory,” Mosteller said. “When we’re trying to promote certain grasses to produce viable seed, we’ll burn in the growing season [spring].”
He said humidity, topography, temperature, wind speed, wind direction and ground moisture also help determine when to burn.
Wildfire vs. Prescribed Fire
Although fires are essential to healthy ecosystems, our experts stress safeguards at all times. Wildfires can flare up and become difficult to control, which threatens homes, public spaces and public safety. Intense wildfires can also damage or destroy forest canopies and consume organic soils and seed banks, making new growth impossible.
“Prescribed burns are a good land-management tool to help the land prosper,” Lacefield said. “They’re always done in a controlled situation under the right weather parameters and, therefore, they don’t damage the land like some wildfires do.”
Lacefield said prescribed burns are planned and executed to let wildlife escape, and to take advantage of winds that blow smoke away from roads and residential areas. Roads, creeks and lush barriers also create firebreaks, which prevent fires from spreading.
Consult a Professional
Prescribed burns are effective, inexpensive habitat-management tools. To conduct a burn on your property, consult your state wildlife agency for more information.
Most states require landowners to be trained and certified to conduct burns. This is work for professionals with the proper tools and know-how to prescribe a fire plan, which outlines the burn’s details and procedures. They’ll also contact the authorities, notify neighbors and conduct a test burn to determine if conditions are right for a full-scale burn. Professionals also have the experience to ensure your prescribed burn get good results.