The values of fire

Paul McKenzie, N.C. Cooperative Extension
Aug. 19, 2013 @ 10:24 AM


Every year we hear the news: Thousands of acres scorched by wildfire. Often the news comes from western states, but occasionally closer to home. The images and stories are disconcerting, homes lost, trees destroyed and, thankfully less frequent, lives cut short.

An uncontrolled fire in the forest is a scary thing. But fire can also be an extremely valuable tool.

The value of fire to improve wildlife habitat has long been recognized, and there is evidence that Native Americans set fire intentionally for this very purpose. In fact,  many plant communities and ecosystems have evolved to depend on the occasional lightening-induced fire.

In the pine forests of Piedmont North Carolina, fire can help clear out underbrush, providing easier movement for wildlife and space for native wildflowers. After the fire, the flush of tender, low-growing stems and foliage provide readily accessible browse for deer and other animals. What’s more, it knocks back those aggressive, habitat-destroying exotic plants.

Forest landowners can benefit from fire as it eliminates undesirable saplings that have limited commercial value. A controlled fire also consumes excess fuels (e.g. fallen leaves, twigs, pine needles, etc.), reducing the risk of wildfire. For all these reasons, fire is often “prescribed” as an important forest management tool.

If you accept that fire in the woods can be beneficial, then the logical question is “how can we do it safely?”

To hear the wildfire reports on the evening news, you might imagine hundreds of acres burning simultaneously. In fact, however, fire moves through the forest in a line, like a single wave moves across the ocean. As the available fuel is consumed, the wave of fire moves on.

For maximum benefit and minimal risk of damage, the wave of fire should be low to the ground. Professional foresters achieve this by carefully choosing the conditions (e.g. humidity and wind speed) under which they conduct a burn. In the right conditions, the flames rarely get higher than a couple feet.

A forester also needs to have some way to stop the wave of fire so it doesn’t cross onto the neighbor’s land. This is accomplished by plowing or bulldozing a ring around the area to be burned, removing fuel (i.e. woody debris) and exposing a strip of bare soil several feet wide. Foresters must be conscientious about smoke as well, choosing conditions where the smoke rises quickly into the atmosphere and dissipates.

On our own little plot of forest-land, my wife and I have conducted two prescribed burns over the past few years. And when I say “my wife and I have conducted” I mean “paid a professional who knows what the heck they are doing!” The results are striking. Deer, turkey and other wildlife are more abundant. Wildflowers have proliferated. Meanwhile, the much-despised sweetgums have been kept to semi-manageable numbers.  The two of us are thoroughly convinced that controlled fire is good for the woods.