Growings On: Prescribed fire recognized as important tool in Georgia landscapes

Roger Gates

A visit to most roadside produce stands will most often include an opportunity to acquire a non-food item, which may escape notice in mid-August. Neat stacks of fuel destined for winter’s fireplaces and wood stoves may be expanding and accumulating at your favorite fruit stand. The quantity of biomass harvested documents the productivity of our region’s forests. As long as sunshine and water are available green vegetation, through the remarkable process of photosynthesis, will produce more vegetation.

In gardens and farm fields, harvesting balances production. In natural systems, forests in particular, other mechanisms have historically been important to maintain the balance of production and degradation. Decay processes modulated by fungi and bacteria play a role in maintaining balance, but fire has been a vital component in maintaining healthy forests for eons.

The phrase “forest fire” may bring to mind catastrophic events such as the 2016 fires that burned large areas of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and adjoining Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and caused 14 deaths. Fortunately, foresters, land managers and natural resource scientists are hard at work trying to understand the behavior of such wild fires and are actively promoting and using prescribed fire, also called controlled burns.

Native inhabitants and even European settlers understood the usefulness of fire in managing vegetation in forested landscapes. In natural landscapes, fire frequency is often closely related to the productivity of the vegetation. By examining annual tree rings, scientists can determine typical “fire return intervals,” the average length of time between fires. Historically, relatively frequent fires in Southeastern forests minimized the likelihood that an event would be catastrophic.

Many adults grew up hearing from “Smokey the Bear” that prevention was the only appropriate response to fire in natural landscapes. That attitude is relatively recent, and has led to unsafe accumulation of fuel in many forests.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and analyzed by Climate Central revealed that prescribed fire is widely used in the Southeast. In 2018, more than 4 million acres of land in Georgia, Florida and Alabama benefitted from a prescribed burn. The same data revealed that in the rest of the country, a controlled burn plan was executed on only 2 million acres.

Crystal Kolden is a scientist who studies fire history and fire behavior. She’s a self-described “pyrogeographer.” She is concerned about the reluctance to adopt prescribed fires, particularly by federal land management agencies.

“Until cultural attitudes toward fire change, and government agencies allow the well-accepted science around burning to inform land management, we will continue to put ourselves at a greater risk than we have to be in,” said Kolden, who was quoted in a story by Climate Central at climatecentral.org.

Additionally, "She found that in the last two decades, non-federal entities in the Southeast carried out 70% of prescribed burns in the United States," according to the website.

Georgia’s land area is 37 million acres. Nine-tenths of that land is owned privately. That means that private landowners, as well as state agencies, have made an important commitment to use prescribed fire to manage their forests.

A burn permit, issued by the Georgia Forestry Commission, is required to legally conduct a prescribed burn. When someone applies for a burn permit, the Forestry Commission checks conditions near the location to ensure a fire will not blow smoke on a busy highway or balloon into an out-of-control blaze. Then it is up to the landowner to decide whether to burn. According to Ken Parker, wildland fire specialist for the commission, the goal is to issue a permit within five minutes. Immediacy and responsiveness allow burns to be implemented when conditions are safest.

Georgia landscapes benefit from appropriate employment of fire to manage and control vegetation and limit fuel accumulation, reducing the likelihood of uncontrolled fire. In the western U.S., extensive areas are federally owned and managed. Some areas have suffered for so long from the absence of fire that timber and mechanical clearing are needed before a prescribed fire plan can be introduced. Costs of preliminary treatments are prohibitive, increasing the likelihood that disastrous fires will continue to occur.

If you do use a wood-burning apparatus, you may recognize the challenge in staying ahead of fuel accumulation in Georgia’s forests. Recognize the lessons that natural systems offer and appreciate the scientists and managers that are learning those lessons to maintain and improve our landscapes.

Roger Gates is the agricultural and natural resources agent for University of Georgia Extension, Whitfield County. Contact him at roger.gates@uga.edu.

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