Fires are an important force shaping forests across much of the United States. Prehistoric fires molded our plant communities and helped create the vast Longleaf Pine forests of the South. In modern times, fire used under controlled and careful conditions is an excellent tool for forest managers and landowners to keep their land healthy.
Prescribed burns can protect timber investments from destructive wildfires by reducing the accumulation of dead material and flammable vegetation such as yaupon, which otherwise could become fuel for a fire in dry and windy conditions.
Additionally, prescribed fire effectively reduces the quantity of low-value hardwood species that compete for moisture, nutrients, and sunlight. Intermittent burns also improve access to forests for timber management activities such as timber cruising and marking. Prescribed fire is one of the most cost-effective and beneficial tools in the habitat management of most desirable game and non-game species: browse production for Whitetail deer, and seed production for wild turkey and quail, to name a few.
Best Times for a Burn
Registered foresters are often asked about the best time to conduct a prescribed burn. Historically, winter or dormant seasons produce the most consistent weather pattern that is conducive to prescribed burning. Typically, adequate soil moisture and cooler temperatures prevent damage to pine trees, and fuel and fire behavior are more predictable. During spring green-up, fuel, and weather conditions can vary, and desirable trees are susceptible to heat damage because of new bud growth. In older pine stands, late spring to early summer prescribed burning can be highly effective in controlling smaller hardwood stems that are one to three inches in diameter.
A key to successful burning is good fire breaks. Fire lines, either dozer lines or disked lanes, should be wide enough to allow access with four-wheelers or similar equipment. The entire perimeter of the burn area should have a good fire line. When using natural barriers such as a minor creek or drainage, there is a risk that the fire may cross the creek, and it is difficult to determine if the fire is out and safe to leave. Having interior fire lines to allow multiple firing locations is optimal. These lines help speed up burnout. Interior lines can be disked lines, dozer lines, or existing woods roads.
Prior to the burn, landowners should identify and remove items such as tree stands, game feeders, and farm equipment. Rake firebreaks around a shooting house or another structure that cannot be removed. Precious time is spent during the burn day trying to secure such items that could be devoted to correctly conducting the burn.
Selecting a Contractor
When selecting a prescribed burning contractor, the landowner should select a manager that will comply with the Mississippi Prescribed Burning Act of 1992. Complying with the law will protect the landowner from most liability issues. The act requires a certified burn manager to supervise the burn, have a written, notarized burn plan, and acquire a burning permit from the Mississippi Forestry Commission for the day of the burn. Ask the contractor for references and experience records and training in the use of fire. In addition, ask to see the burn plan and certificate of insurance.
Finally, be patient. Choosing the correct combination of fuel and weather conditions, as well as the wind direction is key to meeting objectives using fire. Prescribed burning is a complex, but highly effective tool for forestry management.