Do you remember the old saying from Smokey Bear? “Only you can prevent forest fires!” That saying still holds true today. While there are numerous ways of preventing forest fires, one major tool landowners should use is prescribed or controlled burns in their forests.
Fire is a natural part of forest ecology and using it correctly can help you and your land considerably. Controlled burns stimulate the germination of desirable forest trees. This happens when the fire breaks down the coating of dormant seeds, thus renewing the forest.
Controlled burning also helps with fire prevention. Each year, additional leaf litter and dropped branches increase the likelihood of a hot and uncontrollable fire. A prescribed burn done every few years can help prevent wildfires or reduce their severity. It can minimize flammable materials and the spread of pests, insects, and diseases. It can also improve the habitat for threatened and endangered species, recycle nutrients back into the soil and promote vegetation growth.
According to an article from treesource.org, landowners must choose to either utilize prescribed burns or deal with more unchecked wildfires. Up until a decade ago, nature dealt with this issue on its own through natural forest fires from things such as lightning strikes. It was around this time that more and more development took place and we began extinguishing every fire possible. This threw the ecological processes out of whack. In fire’s absence, dead fuels proliferated. So now when a forest ignites, there’s more fuel to consume and the flames are more difficult to control. Mark Finney, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service, calls this the fire paradox. “The more you fight against fire, the worse they get when they happen.”
“The secret to living with fire is having more fire,” says Finney, “not less.” So-called good fire is planned, prescribed burning to reduce the fuels that can contribute to those big, destructive fires that are growing more common in the nation’s forests, he says. Fire depends on a triangle of factors: fuels, weather, and topography. “Fuel is the only component of that we can change,” Finney says. “So if we are going to manage some aspect of fire behavior, it’s got to be the fuel.”
Fuels can be changed through mechanical methods such as logging, thinning and mowing. But the most effective and least expensive way to remove fuels over large areas is by mimicking nature and using “broadcast burning,” or letting fire spread across the ground, Finney says. In a nutshell, periodic fires reduce fine fuels such as pine needles and dead leaves. Meadows form and break up continuous stands of mature forest. That’s how fire worked its magic for thousands of years.
Just like seeing your doctor regularly is much more effective than waiting for an emergency to happen, performing prescribed burns can help you avoid catastrophic damage on your land. And remember, just as Smokey Bear said, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”