Prescribed burning: We need to do it more often

Texas is a state that recognizes the importance of fire and encourages prescribed burning.

Ranchers and rangeland managers can use fire to control or retard invasive species or brushy plants, create more forage for livestock, and reduce fuel to help prevent catastrophic wildfires.

John Weir, Extension specialist of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Oklahoma State University teaches classes on prescribed fire and fire ecology—season of burn, plant community effects and impacts, etc. He also works with landowners and government agencies, providing training and assistance, information about fire effects, and how to burn.

“The Oklahoma Prescribed Burn Association website has a form people can fill out about burns they have conducted. We cover the entire southern Great Plains. The main reason they burn is for woody plant control—especially cedar that encroaches on grasslands and prairies. In forests, people burn to remove excessive growth of understory. Another major reason for burning is to improve grazing lands,” Weir told WLJ.

“By using fire, we can control the amount of fuel, and get all the benefits of fire without the problems. Where wildfires are a concern, we can change their behavior. The fire may go out when it hits burned areas we’ve created, or slows to a more manageable and safer level, making it easier to put it out,” he explains. With periodic controlled burns there is less fuel, less chance for unwanted fires.

Most plains states do a lot of prescribed burning.

“Kansas and Oklahoma together burn more than 3 million acres annually—mainly on private lands because those states are predominantly private land. They burn more acres than some of the states with federal lands and do it safely and effectively,” Weir says.

“There’s not a very effective chemical means of control, especially for cedar. Mechanical brush control is costly. Fire is most economical and provides more benefits. With fire we can increase forage production, plant health and vigor, palatability, crude protein, and weight gains on livestock,” he says.

Mark Melvin of Jones Ecological Research Center in Georgia has been involved with prescribed burns around the country for more than 25 years. “We do conservation management and research, primarily in the longleaf pine ecosystem (one of the most fire-dependent forestry landscapes in the U.S.); people burn half their property every year, on a two-year rotation. Fire is our primary management tool,” Melvin told WLJ.

The South has state agencies and laws supporting appropriate use of fire for resource benefit, and most Southern states have certified burn manager programs. Landowners/managers can obtain burn authorizations the day of the burn, whereas other states require multiple days or longer to acquire a burn permit. Use of fire in the South is still in the hands of practitioners, which allows maximum flexibility in choosing the best fire weather conditions.

“I work nationally through the Fire Council, national groups and federal partners,” says Melvin. “There’s a large divide between East and West in fire use, largely due to land ownership.” There isn’t much prescribed burning on federal lands in the West, and those landscapes are plagued by major wildfires because there hasn’t been enough grazing, logging or prescribed burning.

By contrast, the tall grass prairie in the Midwest uses a lot of prescribed fire on cattle operations. “The Flint Hills in Kansas (and into Oklahoma) is the only place in the country that burns at the scale we do here in Georgia, Florida and Alabama,” says Melvin.

In 2018, Georgia, Florida and Alabama prescribed burns on more than 4 million acres while the remaining 47 states and territories burned about 2 million acres.

“The past two years I’ve been working in the West, trying to facilitate more burning with various groups. People are realizing we need to do more burning, and Prescribed Fire Councils have played a role in that. Idaho is burning the least of any Western states but I’m working with a group there to get a burn council started,” he says. Montana and Utah also do not have a state council.

There are prescribed fire councils in Washington, Oregon, California, and a new one in Wyoming. “Arizona and New Mexico have a fair amount of prescribed burning; their ponderosa pine forests do well with periodic burns,” says Melvin.

Crystal Kolden, fire specialist at University of Idaho, recently led a study comparing regional prescribed burning practices and says that in the last two decades, non-federal entities in the Southeast carried out 70 percent of prescribed burns in the U.S. She said that until cultural attitudes toward fire in the West change, and government agencies allow the science of burning to inform land management, we’ll continue to be at risk for horrific wildfires.

States differ in their attitude toward fire, partly because each ecosystem requires different management approaches. Georgia’s longleaf pines need fire every few years to burn away brush, while many of California’s forests need fire every few decades. But California’s public and private landowners rarely burn (suppressing fires over the past century instead), and much of California’s forestland is choked by underbrush, increasing wildfire risks.

Amanda Rau, Oregon-Washington fire manager and Oregon Prescribed Fire Council chairwoman is trying to help change this situation in the West.

“Within the past 10 years, there’s been more focus on restoration burning. The Sisters/Deschutes Ranger District on the Deschutes National Forest has been conducting prescribed fires for 30 years. They were ahead of everyone in being proactive because of their unique geography and how fires burn in that region, often towards the town of Sisters, OR. They did a lot of work to prevent catastrophic wildfires because they knew fire was going to happen, and wanted to make sure it burned under their management instead of whole timber stands decimated,” she told WLJ.

While working at Sisters as a federal employee planning and leading burns, she and another fuels technician started a Prescribed Fire Council, and began working with the Prescribed Fire Training Exchange Program. “Much of the burning on private lands is done by the landowners and a small operation can’t afford to pay someone to do a prescribed burn. We use private lands as places to train, in our Prescribed Fire Training Exchange Program, and the Nature Conservancy assumes liability for the burn. We are a large, insured organization with a lot of experience—doing prescribed fires since the 1950s. Our goal is to inspire people to learn how to do it themselves, but we offer education, such as learn-and-burn events,” says Rau.

Lenya Quinn-Davidson organized a prescribed burn association in Humboldt County in Northern California in March 2018, where ranchers were battling Douglas fir encroaching on oak woodlands and grasslands. “She’s been very successful; that group has now burned thousands of acres. Its private-landowner led and they don’t have the strict regulations typical of state and federal fire personnel,” says Rau. — Heather Smith Thomas, WLJ correspondent

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