Last year, a result of El Niño conditions and ill-considered public policy, Texas experienced the most forest fire and drought damage in its State’s history; fire destroyed $97 million worth of timber, and as many as 500 million trees were killed by drought. This year, it looks like Texas will have a more mild fire and drought season due to La Niña, which brings more moisture. In the West, however, many predict the fireseason will be more severe than ever.
In general, fires are influenced by three major factors: weather, topography and vegetation. The combinations of these factors determine the risk and likelihood a fire will start, how fast it will burn/spread, the intensity and the direction of the fire, and the ability to extinguish it. If the weather is dry and a thick understory provides ladder fuels, wildfires can quickly get out of control.
One of the best ways to prevent these large, hard-to-control fires is through prescribed burns, also known as hazard reduction burns. This is especially true in pine stands, which can accumulate fuels rapidly. Prescribed burns not only reduce the likelihood of wildfires. According to the USDA Forest Service Southern Region’s publication Guide for Prescribed Fire in Southern Forests, “wildfires that burn into areas where fuels have been reduced by prescribed burning cause less damage and are much easier to control.”
Timberland owners and forest managers know that the use of prescribed burning can improve the quality of the timber in a forest, benefit wildlife by improving habitats and reduce the risk of large-scale out-of-control fires. Some of the best management practices used by timberland owners and managers to reduce the risk, and control the spread, of wildfires include :
- Thinning of dense vegetation: Thin existing trees so that crowns have space to grow; remove trees that are dead, damaged, overtopped, have forked crowns or are in poor health and quality.
- Base of tree vegetation removal: Remove vegetation from around the base of the tree and prune to its lower tree branches to remove prevalence of ladder fuels and reduce density of vines.
- Create adequate firebreaks: Develop a network of natural and man-made firebreaks through the use of logging roads, skid trails, streams and cultivated fields. Firebreaks should be at least 10 to 12 feet wide with no abrupt change in direction. Remove all brush and vines that could carry fire or embers across the break.
- Conduct an initial burn and then periodic burns. While the intervals could vary, a four-year burning cycle is typical after an initial burn.
Prescribed burns should be closely planned and implemented by specially trained forestry professionals. These professionals understand the ways in which temperature, wind speed and direction, and the humidity levels interact, and they can therefore choose the ideal timing for the burn as well as the technique.
Obtain your State’s wildfire prevention and best practice recommendations from your State Forestry Association, or from the following links:
Many states also have State Prescribed Fire Councils – a listing of all prescribed fire councils by State.
For more information about wildfires and prescribed burns:
- U. S. Drought Monitor – presented by the Department of Agriculture, you can view current conditions, forecasts and a weekly summary of drought conditions in the United States.
- The Wildfire Prevention Campaign –An interactive map of current wildfires.
- Tall Timbers E.V. Komarek Fire Ecology Database - a web-based gateway for fire information called the Southern Fire Portal (SFP) that single point access to fire data, documents, projects, tools, and websites related to fire and natural resource management in the southern United States.
- Southern Area Coordination Center (SACC), National Incident Management System – coordinates and provides support in emergency situations, and is the focal point for mobilizing in support of wildland fires and emergency/disaster relief efforts.
- Southern Forest Futures Project – a multi-year research effort that analyzes and forecasts probable changes in southern forests between 2010 and 2060.
- Synthesis Report: Current Work on Prescribed Fire Related to Longleaf Pine Restoration – a report prepared by Southeastern Regional Partnership for Planning and Sustainability (SERPPAS) that examines current knowledge about barriers and alternatives related to prescribed fire in the Southeast, including documentation of goals and priority activities of relevant agencies, organizations, and other stakeholders to develop a strategic plan for preservation of long-leaf pines in the Southeast.
Nice post. Another control option to remove fuel load is collecting harvest residue as fuel to generate power. While controlled burns remove the fuel load, this type of open burning results in significantly more emissions than combusting the same material in boilers equipped with air emission control technology. If as a nation we can develop an energy policy that recognizes the benefits of BioPower then it will be a win-win, saving our forest from devistation while we reduce carbon emissions from power production.
[...] Use of Prescribed Burns to Limit Wildfire Damage | F2M Market Watch. [...]
In areas such as South Georgia, Southern Alabama and Florida, burns should be on a two or three year rotation due the sub-tropical nuture of the climate. In normal years, the growth of undrestory in these regions can rapidily put the vegetation beyond the point that is easily controlled by prescribed burning.