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Prescription: Fire

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

a long history of burning is that plant species common when settlers arrived in Missouri died out where fire was excluded. When fire is reintroduced, they often quickly recover and prosper.

Fire and humans have shaped Missouri's ecosystems at least since the ice age ended. This means that many species - both plants and animals - evolved to depend on and cope with fire. Today, especially as specialized habitats and some species become quite rare, managers have to know when and how to use fires to help them.

Society can no longer tolerate wildfires running rampant through the countryside until nightfall or rain calls "halt." However, managers who carefully plan to minimize risks can use fire to keep some habitats and species healthy. It's the same thing people have done for thousands of years, except it's done with a commitment to prescribed burning and to protect people and property from loss and damage.

The Old Days and Smokey Bear

When the Conservation Department started suppressing wildfires in the 1930s, the land was ravaged by annual, indiscriminate burning and free ranging cattle, hogs and goats. Misuse degraded the landscape with erosion, gravel in the streams and little wildlife or commercial timber. Now the tendency is to accuse those old timers of wanton destruction of our natural resources. But wait. Remember that these folks, many unemployed after the logging boom of the early 1900s, were trying to eke out a living on hardscrabble Ozark hills. They weren't worried about retirement plans and medicare cuts. They were worried about having food, any food, for their families.

They knew of the Indian traditions of burning and they needed the oak leaves gone so their hogs could reach the acorns and their cows could find enough scraps of grass to produce milk for the family. Yes, what they were doing to the land was damaging and irresponsible by today's standards, but these rugged folks were "making do" in a world without unemployment insurance, job training or government assistance.

Smokey Bear, the fire fighting symbol of fire prevention since the 1940s, is still around and he's still "huffin' and puffin' and sniffin' the air." Smokey has been one of the most successful advertising campaigns in the nation's history. His messages on fire prevention to school children have resulted in a generation of baby boomers who are aware of the dangers of wildfires.

Now that we know some fires can serve us and do good things for the environment, Smokey is changing his message to "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires." His message of responsibility with fire in the woods is just as valid today as it was in 1944. Here in Missouri, with all of the houses being built in our beautiful forest lands, it is crucial that we let no fires, wild or prescribed, cause damage.

Smokey's Checklist - Don't Burn If:

  • You don't have a written burn plan.
  • You can't stay with the fire until it is safe.
  • You don't have the needed equipment or people.
  • Your firelines aren't in place and functional.
  • You don't have the right weather or it is expected to change during the burn.
  • You haven't contacted neighbors, the rural fire department and the Conservation Department.

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