The sweet aroma of Southern pine tree snags smoldering on a warm spring afternoon is a fragrance most appreciated when standing on the safe side of a secure fireline.
Creeping across the blackened Alabama landscape, smoke alone remains from the low intensity flames that rolled through the forest earlier in the day, initiating a natural process that will provide a myriad of ecological and economical benefits with both short-term and long-term impacts.
Fire in the South
Man’s use of fire to help balance his use of the natural world is nothing new. Early settlers in the Southeast discovered that Native Americans, utilizing the natural fire occurrence in the South, used fire in the virgin pine stands to improve hunting, restrict brush growth and clear land for farming.
Over time, the misuse of fire created wildfire problems and led to a subsequent campaign to prevent all forest fires. The resulting absence of fire in pine forests caused a buildup of hazardous fuels, increasing the chances for destructive wildfire.
Concurrently, substandard hardwoods began to dominate pine sites.
Research and experimental burning began in the 1930s to determine the effects of fire on various species. Studies showed that pines were more resistant to fire than hardwoods, leading to the current use of prescribed burning, the deliberate use of fire by professional foresters under controlled conditions, to help achieve several objectives of multiple-use forest management.
While the idea of fire creating life might seem counterintuitive, the use of prescribed fire is actually vital to many species in the South and can be a land manager’s most valuable tool.
Save time and money: Utilizing prescribed fire continues to be not only a desirable, economically sound management tool, it may also be the only practical option.
Chemical applications cost more than 10 times per acre, and mechanical treatments are at least 20 times more expensive, with increased environmental costs associated with habitat destruction and soil erosion.
Reduce forest fuel: Both pines and hardwoods benefit from the fire-induced reduction of potential wildfire destruction created by accumulated pine needles, fallen branches, hardwood leaves, dried grasses and weeds.
Dispose of logging debris: Burning can help eliminatelimbs and stems unsuitable for marketing that are left scattered or concentrated after harvest.
Prepare sites for seeding and planting: Fire can help expose mineral soil and control competing vegetation that could hinder seedling establishment. Burning also recycles nutrients, making them available for next year’s crop.
Improve wildlife habitat: Deer, turkey, quail and doves enjoy the increased yield and quality of herbs, legumes and browse. Additionally, creating a mosaic of burned and unburned areas maximizes “edge effect,” which encourages a diversity of wildlife species.
Manage competition: Prescribed fire helps eliminate poor-quality hardwoods that encroach upon pine stands, competing for moisture and nutrients.
Control disease: Burning pine needles infected with brownspot disease reduces the number of spores available to infect the seedlings. It also helps destroy some of the fruiting bodies of Fomes annosus, a disease that causes root rot.
Improve forage for grazing: Dead plant material low in nutrient value is removed during burning while new growth high in protein, phosphorus, and calcium becomes more available.
Enhance aesthetic value: Prescribed burning creates open spaces, open stands, and a diversity of wildflowers that both people and wildlife find attractive.
Improve access: The open areas created by burning underbrush allow for easier timber cruising, marking and harvesting. Additionally, the increased visibility provides easier travel for hikers and better shooting conditions for hunters.
To learn more about what you need to know before you burn, check out next month’s column on how to effectively use prescribed fire to help maximize your land management objectives for forestry, wildlife and recreational value.