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Burning Down the House

By David Hart

Burnin' Down the House

The very notion of dropping a lit match onto a dry forest floor is as frightening to some as looking down the barrel of a loaded gun. The fires that swept through Yellowstone National Park in 1988 and the wildfires that have caused so much destruction in southern California in recent years have created a negative public perception of brush and forest fires. But for wildlife management, there are few better tools than fire.

When done properly, a controlled burn can create an incredible amount of new food for deer and other wildlife, and it can turn marginal habitat into exceptional habitat. The key, of course, is to know when, how and why a burn is the right management tool for your property. In most situations, a controlled burn will help your land and the wildlife that lives on it, said Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries district wildlife biologist Cale Godfrey. “There really aren’t many situations where it won’t help,” he said.

Fire helps control woody growth and other dense vegetation. It puts nutrients back in the soil, and it stimulates new plants that serve as food for deer, turkeys and other wildlife. A burn won’t, however, provide much benefit in mature stands of oaks and other tall trees that don’t allow sunlight to reach the forest floor, said Richard Prince, a stewardship biologist with the Alabama Forestry Commission. Simply burning off the leaf cover on the ground will inject nutrients into the soil, but the heavy shade from the canopy will hinder the new growth that is so beneficial.

“It can work in a mature forest that has been selectively cut,” said Prince. “As long as there is sunlight reaching the ground, new growth will come up. A burn will also help clear out the tree tops and other woody debris left behind by the loggers. Those tops can serve as habitat themselves, but they also can prohibit the growth of new vegetation. Fire can really help things move along at a faster rate.”

Godfrey and Prince agree that a prescribed burn works best in pine plantations and other areas with dense undergrowth that has gotten too thick or tall to provide suitable habitat and food for wildlife. Prince said loblolly pine plantations are ideal candidates for a burn, but the stands should be at least 10 years old before they are subjected to a prescribed fire because the crowns of younger, shorter trees are vulnerable to scorching or igniting. That can kill them. He added that a burn works well after the pines have been thinned at least once.

“Longleaf pines are more fire tolerant. They can be burned when they are only 3 or 4 years old, but even they can be damaged if it’s done at the wrong time of year,” said Prince.

Fallow fields of dense grass and other short, thick plant growth are also great places to set on fire. The flames will create space for new, succulent greens and will remove the dead plant matter that impedes new growth. Fire also opens up the ground for such game species as quail and rabbits. Where they thrive, deer thrive.

“Areas of timber harvest that haven’t been replanted with pines are prime candidates for a prescribed burn,” said Prince. “After about 8 or 10 years, the growth in a clear-cut just gets too thick to hunt, and the plants become too tall to benefit deer and other wildlife.”

Burnin' Down the House
Burning the pine needles and leaf litter in a mature forest will work only if sunlight reaches the forest floor. If you want to use fire to boost your land’s productivity, consult with a forester to see if it will work in your situation.

A prescribed fire will either kill young trees and dense underbrush completely, or it will damage them enough to stimulate new growth from the plants that survive. Either way, Godfrey said, the ash left behind is a great fertilizer for new plants, which can spring up from the ground within days of the burn. Those plants tend to be more palatable and more nutritious to deer and other wildlife as a result of the fresh injection of nutrients.

So how do you know if your land is right for a burn? Leave that to the experts. Most state forestry departments or wildlife agencies will gladly pay you a visit to help you assess your land and discuss the possibility of setting it on fire. You can also hire a consulting forester, but it’s wise to use someone who has experience or training in prescribed burns. Not only will they have the knowledge of how and when to burn, they also will have the necessary equipment to cut fire breaks and extinguish the flames if they get out of hand.

Fire Season

Godfrey said when you burn should depend on the habitat and your goals. The most popular time for controlled burns is in the late winter before plants have started to produce buds. The fast-moving flames kill the stems of woody vegetation like the stump sprouts of oaks and other hardwoods. That forces new sprouts to emerge, and those new sprouts are fantastic deer forage. They also will knock down dead blackberry and greenbrier canes, as well as grass and other low plants that have become too dense for quail and other small animals. As soon as warm weather arrives, new plants will come up from the charred ground and the wildlife will return.

Fire is also good for the habitat when the trees and other plants are just starting to leaf out, but Prince noted that a fire in April or May will wipe out bird nests and the eggs or chicks in those nests. It can also take a heavy toll on slow-moving animals like turtles and snakes, and there will likely be some mortality to other wildlife. Prince, however, said the long-term benefits to the habitat and wildlife as a whole might outweigh the loss of a few nests or individual animals.

Godfrey said if you are concerned about destroying nests, it’s a good idea to wait until the late summer. “A late-summer burn, typically in late August or September, will kill most of the green plant life, but there will still be time for new plants to come up before they go dormant in the fall,” he explained. “In the spring, that new growth will really come on strong, and the habitat will be extremely healthy and beneficial to a variety of game and non-game wildlife.”

Safety First

No matter when you burn, it’s critical to follow a few safety guidelines before you set your woods on fire. The best thing you can do is contact your state forestry department. In some states, it’s illegal to burn without checking with them first. Other states have laws that dictate when and how you can burn everything from a small pile of leaves to a large forest.

Although many state forestry agencies don’t actually conduct controlled burns themselves, they can offer all the advice and support you might need to conduct a safe burn. They can tell you when it’s safe — and legal — to light the match and when it’s not. Or they can point you to an independent certified forester who is qualified to conduct a prescribed burn.

Godfrey, who often consults with landowners on wildlife habitat issues, said the Virginia Dept. of Forestry has a set of safety guidelines everyone who wants to burn must follow. So do other state forestry agencies. Those guidelines generally include such factors as relative humidity, wind speed, air temperature, smoke mixing height, a ventilation factor and a cumulative severity index, which essentially measures overall moisture conditions.

Subscribe Today!In order for a fire to burn safely, the smoke must rise to a specific height. Otherwise, it might create a dense screen across roads or occupied dwellings, and that can lead to a host of serious problems. Even if the smoke height is acceptable, it’s still a good idea to notify adjoining landowners of your intentions. You might have to assure your neighbor that a prescribed burn will be conducted safely and that it will improve the habitat. It’s also wise to notify the local fire department.

“Everyone has a cell phone these days, and their first reaction is to call 9-1-1 when they see a forest fire,” added Prince. “Make sure your local sheriff’s office knows about the fire and the exact location so they don’t have to send a fire truck out if there is no need.”

This article was published in the August, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.

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