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Prescription: Fire

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Published on: Jun. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

Conservation Department Forester Tom Draper had a problem. The 3,357 acre Ketcherside Mountain Conservation Area presented a puzzle. Working with a wildlife biologist, Draper came to realize a portion of the area should be a savannah or a glade. Instead, he had 600 acres of brush and small trees. The area was neither good for wildlife nor for growing quality trees.

A savannah is an area of scattered, mature trees with a lush ground covering of grasses and wildflowers. Glades, home only to grasses and flowers, are most common in hilly terrain, often on south-facing and west facing slopes. Glades are drier and less conducive to woody plant growth than surrounding areas. If the area could be restored to a savannah or a glade, it would provide important habitat for deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife.

Draper knew he could open up this portion of Ketcherside Mountain with chain saws or herbicides. But both approaches are expensive and time consuming and, with saws, the stumps left behind would resprout. He decided a prescribed fire would be best. Only the area of savannah or a glade would be burned, and the fire would be kept out of surrounding forests.

A Conservation Department team burned the 600-acre tract on Ketcherside Mountain in the spring of 1995. "We are really happy with the way the habitat there is responding," Draper says. "There are grasses and forbs growing now, and we are seeing signs of more deer and wild turkeys." Maintenance burning will continue in the future, with the area being burned this year and in 1999. Later, the area may be burned in March or April every three to five years, and vegetation in study plots will be monitored closely to see how it responds to fire.

Foresters like Draper are now exploring the use of fire as a tool to shape the land they oversee. For contemporary conservationists, it's a learn-as-you go experience because we don't fully understand the relationships between fire and vegetation. American Indians probably set fires more widely and frequently than previously thought, and repeated burning at Ketcherside Mountain will mimic the fires that swept over this area in the years before European settlers arrived.

Fire has always fascinated us. Early peoples worshipped fire, for it heated their homes, cooked their food and kept away the creatures of the night. However, when fire got out of control and ravaged property and took lives, it was seen as a demon.

Fire has maintained this good guy/bad guy role throughout history. Even as we have studied the effects of fire on the natural world around us, we are discovering more ways that fire can be an asset to humans directly as well as to our natural world.

Protecting Our Resources From Fire

The Conservation Department, along with the U. S . Forest Service and a multitude of rural fire departments, has done a landmark job in curtailing the destructive fires of the past. However, each year, wild natural cover fires burn over 50,000 acres in the state.

We sometimes lose dwellings and outbuildings. We do lose the value of commercial grade timber through scarring and subsequent disease. We do lose soil cover and items such as fence posts and hay bales, and we spend tax money paying and equipping our firefighters to get in harm's way and put these fires out.

The irony of Missouri's wildfire problem is that these fires are all human produced and, therefore, preventable. Some are escaped trash or rubbish fires, some are due to carelessness with matches or campfires, some are from ill-planned burns by landowners.

And some are arson, deliberately set to cause harm or fear to someone else. In some parts of the state these arson sets account for more than half of the acres burned. Arson sets and escaped fires generally have one thing in common. They occur when the weather is dry, fuel is dry and winds are high. The result is that the fires have maximum destructive potential. This maximum destructive potential is what people have come to expect from any and all fires they see.

Protecting Our Resources With Fire

The Conservation Department has spent over 60 years fighting wildfires and trying to convince people of the damage associated with wildland fires. The Conservation Department has been successful in this. However, as we have learned more about the natural resources we manage, we have found that not all fires are bad. In fact, if you know what you are doing and use it under the right circumstances, a prescribed fire can be a good land management tool.

How can prescribed fire help you manage your property? It can:

  • Produce more forage for cattle in native warm-season grass plantings and prairies. Fire has been used successfully in the Great Plains by ranchers for 150 years.
  • Increase vigor and diversity of plant and animal life in prairies. Naturalists and nature enthusiasts are impressed with the flowering and diversity of plants and animals in a prairie that is managed properly with fire.
  • Control woody plants and exotic grasses in idled fields. Mostly a wildlife management technique, fire can be quite effective in reducing cedar, locust, hedge and elm invading idled land. It also retards exotic grasses and encourages the annual weeds that provide food for wildlife.
  • Restore vigor and plant diversity to glades and savannahs. Fire can rejuvenate cedar-invaded glades and savannahs that have lost their grassy understory. Extreme caution is required to see that the glade or savannah burn doesn't become a wildfire in the woods.
  • * Fire may help in woodland and forest management. We are currently studying the effectiveness of fire in controlling maple trees within oak forests. It may be useful to not only control competing woody plants, but to also stimulate the growth of oaks, especially white oaks.

These potentials are still under study and will require the judicial use of fire, but fire may be more economical and environmentally sensitive than cutting trees or using herbicides. From a naturalist perspective, periodic prescribed fire, done carefully, may increase the biological diversity within a woodland. This option is also under study and may involve a trade-off between biological diversity and commercial value of the timber within the woodland.

What Is a Prescribed Fire?

The Conservation Department fights wildfires and conducts prescribed fires. So do the Forest Service, national parks, state parks and Corps of Engineers. All of these agencies plan to burn over 50,000 acres each year, if the weather and conditions are suitable.

The important distinction with a prescribed fire is that we select it as our best management tool, plan how to use it, have control lines, have sufficient personnel and equipment available to conduct it safely and then evaluate it after the burn to see that it accomplished what we wanted.

We use state-of-the-art weather information, train and equip our personnel for safety and have plans ready in case something unexpected happens and the fire gets out of our planned area. We typically burn under less severe conditions than when we have wildfire problems. The intensity of our prescribed burns are noticeably less than the more destructive wildfires.

If You Use Prescribed Fire, Do It Right

Private landowners have been using fire for decades. Ranchers in northern and southwest Missouri have been working with the Conservation Department and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for the past 10 to 15 years to manage their prairie grasses with prescribed fire. Many other landowners and some non-landowners have been burning off land without benefit of a plan. Sometimes they get the desired results, but sometimes their fires burn too fiercely or get onto adjoining lands and cause more damage than good.

Prescribed fire takes time, thought and a commitment to see that you burn only what you want and when you want it. The two cardinal rules of prescribed burning are:

If you aren't going to achieve what you want, don't burn it, and À If you can't contain it, don't light it.

The Conservation Department continues to work with landowners to train them on the safe and effective use of prescribed fire. Our forest districts have current weather information and are able to warn you if burning conditions are expected to make your prescribed fire hard to contain. Take advantage of both the training and weather availability if you are thinking of doing any prescribed burning.

The next time you see a fire on the landscape and see a bunch of us with our flame retardant yellow shirts and fire fighting gear, remember - we may be fighting a wildfire or we may be doing a prescribed burn. The staff and the equipment will be the same, but the results are totally different.

Wear and tear on the workers are also different. In a wildfire situation, heat and smoke are intense and decisions must be made instantly. In a prescribed fire situation, prior planning and preparation makes it unnecessary for firefighters to endure the heat and smoke. A saying among the prescribed burners is, "Plan before you light it, so you won't have to fight it".

Using Prescribed Fire

If you have decided that prescribed fire is a good management tool for your land, and you are willing to take the care and time needed to do it right, you have one more question to answer. "Am I going to use prescribed fire periodically, and continue to do it right?"

Prescribed burning, just as grazing, haying or chemical application, is a management practice that must be repeated for maximum effectiveness. Forage production will only benefit for a few years following a burn.

Plant diversity and vigor will only be stimulated for a few years with one burn. Plant diversity will probably continue to change over time in a managed natural community, but only if periodic prescribed burns are continued. The frequency of burns will vary by plant community from every few years to only once in 10-20 years, but repeat burns will be necessary to maintain the benefits of using prescribed fire.

If you plan to use prescribed fire:

  • Contact the Conservation Department for information and training.
  • Prepare a burn plan.
  • Stick to your burn plan - call it off if anything isn't right.
  • Get weather information and let the Conservation Department forester and rural fire department know when you burn.
  • Be committed to using prescribed fire periodically.

Wildfires in Missouri and in the West

The massive wildfires of the Western lands in 1996 received considerable television and press coverage. The wildfires in Missouri pale by comparison for intensity and size, but can still be destructive. Western fires are in more arid settings and burn into the crowns of the large pines, creating flames over 100 feet off the ground.

Missouri fires typically burn in the forest litter with flames 2 to 5 feet high. Grassland fires and burning cedar trees can create 15- to 20- foot flames, but most grass fires have flames of 2 to 3 feet. These fires can kill and they can burn houses and cover roadways with dense smoke. Fortunately the Conservation Department has never had a fatality among its firefighters from the direct effects of a wildfire.

Shaping the Environment

In western states with dry climates, lightning often starts wildfires, but that's rare in Missouri. Our state's high humidity means most fires, including almost every fire in forested areas, are started by people.

People have been here using fire at least since the ice ages ended about 10,000 years ago. Some fires no doubt escaped accidentally. But Indian cultures predating European settlement told how fire was used extensively to shape the human environment.

Native peoples probably set fire for several reasons: to reduce the fuel, and thereby the chance of accidental or hostile burning; to clear forest underbrush for easier travel and hunting; or to generate new green growth attractive to wildlife.

European settlers recorded their own experiences with fire and accounts told them by the natives. Other records were written by fire itself in the rings of long-lived trees.

Fire often scars trees it does not kill. By examining fire scars in old trees, timbers and even wood fragments, scientists can say that Missouri forests have been burning for thousands of years. And if forests burned, prairies almost certainly did.

Further evidence for 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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