Not All Forest Fires Are Created Equal

The public nowadays has a negative perception and misunderstanding of forest fires, believing that fires should be kept out of every type of forest. Many of us can recall Smoky the Bear’s famous warning: “Remember, only YOU can prevent forest fires”.

However, not all fires are created equal—some forest fires are actually good (yes, good!) for natural areas. Under the right conditions, and when conducted safely, fire can create many environmental benefits as well as help prevent larger, uncontrollable wildfires. Some ecosystems even require forest fire to thrive, such as longleaf pine found in the south and the ponderosa pine of the west.

prescribed forest fire
Chris Wright (Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge) burns a portion of the north fireline on a prescribed fire of Mt. Longleaf NWR in Alabama. Photo by: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region’s Photostream

Many plant and animal species are dependent upon or assisted by fire, as fire burns away much of the leaf litter on the forest floor and exposes insects and seeds.

A gopher tortoise emerges from its burrow; turtles survive fires by burrowing underground or using their shells as protection.
A gopher tortoise emerges from its burrow; turtles survive fires by burrowing underground or using their shells as protection. Photo by: Holmes Palacios

After a forest fire, many wildlife species will move into recently burned areas to feed on these newly available foods. Some reptiles and amphibians such as the pine snake, pine barrens tree frog, and the endangered gopher tortoise prefer forests frequently burned by fire.

“One of the most harmful things modern man has done to birds has been his attempt to exclude fire from fire-type pine forests. Within a few years most forests choke up with brush, lose their prairie-like vegetation and can no longer support birds dependent on periodic burning for their food supply and proper cover.” — Herbert Stoddard

If I asked you to picture the forest floor, what do you see? Pine needles, cones, leaves, limbs might come to mind—all sources of fuel. If these and other fuel sources build up without any type of removal, the ‘fuel load’ can become too great and when ignited by various ignition sources, lead to fires that are catastrophic to forests and people alike. In contrast, prescribed fire can be used by forest professionals and forest owners to burn the woods every couple of years to keep these forest fuels at an appropriate and manageable level. These good fires can also:

  • minimize the spread of pest insects and disease
  • remove unwanted tree and plant species that crowd out and threaten native species
  • create and maintain important wildlife habitats rich in grasses and forbs
  • promote the growth of trees, wildflowers and other various plants

Many organizations and agencies work to promote fire on the landscape when and where appropriate. Smokey Bear even has an updated warning: “Only You can Prevent Wildfires,” as the Forest Service has over the last few decades developed policies and procedures to include prescribed fire as a management tool, as well as continuing their work to prevent and fight wildfires.

NWF’s Southeast Forestry Program works with fire experts, forest owners, and others to promote prescribed fire to help maintain and improve the habitat value of longleaf pine forests.

AWF and NWF hold prescribed fire workshop for landowners in Andalusia, Alabama. Photo by Tiffany Woods
AWF and NWF hold prescribed fire workshop for landowners in Andalusia, Alabama. Photo by Tiffany Woods

Our ongoing work with our affiliate, the Alabama Wildlife Federation, has resulted in over 9,000 acres of longleaf pine habitat being restored by working with landowners to plant new trees and manage their forests.

We work to educate landowners and promote the use of prescribed fire in the longleaf habitat by providing individual landowner assistance and holding workshops and field days, funded by National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s and Southern Company’s Longleaf Stewardship Fund.

In 2014, a total of 1.22 million acres of prescribed burning was reported in longleaf pine across the entire range. Of these acres, 85 percent of controlled burns took place on public lands, with only 15 percent occurring on private lands. America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative and others have identified the need to increase the amount of prescribed fire on private land as a priority moving forward for longleaf restoration.

AWF and NWF plan to continue our work to increase and improve conditions for longleaf pine, with prescribed fire being a priority of the management tools for landowners and professionals in current and future projects. We will continue to advocate and promote the necessary and safe management tool of fire in the forest.

 Help NWF to continue our longleaf pine restoration efforts.

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