Prescribed Fire: A Forest Management Tool
We usually think of fire as an unwanted, destructive force. And it certainly can be. But there are times when fire is not only beneficial but necessary for healthy and productive land.
Much of North Carolina is in what is known as a fire-dependant environment. Long before humans began taming the land, it adapted to a regime of regular, low-intensity wildfires. The fires opened up space in crowded understories and helped germinate the seeds of certain tree species, and re-shaped the environment for the benefit of wildlife.
Our forests still need these periodic fires, but for the sake of lives and property it is no longer practical to allow wildfires to burn unfettered. So land managers have developed the practice of prescribed fire - carefully controlled, low intensity fires set by specially trained people for specific environmental purposes.
Prescribed fires are set only when weather and fuel conditions are just right. The person in charge of the fire, known as the burn boss, examines the tract to be burned and makes certain there are sufficient fire breaks to stop the spread of the blaze. Fire breaks are natural or artificial areas without significant amounts of fuels. They may be pre-existing, like roads or rivers, or specially created for the burn, either with mechanical equipment like a bulldozer, or with hand-tools.
Once sufficient fire breaks have been identified, the burn boss determines the optimum time and weather conditions under which the burn should be conducted. Burners looks for times of the day where smoke will rise away from the ground in well developed columns, reducing discomfort to people and hazardous conditions on roadways. For the fire to spread correctly, just the right balance must be found between temperature, fuel moisture and air humidity. Too dry and hot and the fire can quickly burn out of control; too cool and moist and it will not be possible to sustain a flame.
Different types of burns are conducted under different conditions. Most burning is done in the winter months, with low temperatures and moderate fuel moisture. Burning at this type of year is typically done to thin understory growth and to remove fuels that would be dangerous during the wildfire seasons. Site preparation burning, where a recently harvested tract of timber is burned off, is typically done in the summer months, when higher temperatures are required to more thoroughly incinerate the "slash" or debris leftover from a harvesting job in preparation for re-planting.
We all want to preserve the beauty and productivity of North Carolina's forest resources and prescribed fire is just one tool in a vital storehouse of scientific forest management techniques.
To learn more about prescribed burning in North Carolina visit the Web site of the North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council.