Prescribed Burns or controlled burns have long been a tool for forestry management and continue to grow in popularity, particularly in the south. A native-born Marylander, I did not have much exposure to this practice in my youth. For me, fire was a tool we used for clearing brush not managing it, and Smokey the Bear’s deep voice still echos in my ears about forest fire prevention.
It wasn’t until I moved to southwest Virginia and began roaming the mountains of the Jefferson National Forest, that I soon encountered large areas of charred forest floor. Some of these areas were the result of lightning strikes or careless accidents, but others were set intentionally by the Virginia Prescribed Fire Council and other state agencies. My sophomore Forestry class at Virginia Tech was a terrific experience during which the importance of prescribed burning was explained in great detail and the reason for which it is so heavily depended upon by land managers across the country.
It can be strange to think of the words habitat and fire in the same sentence. Afterall, doesn’t fire destroy habitat? But that is one of the major uses for these low intensity burns. In fact many of the habitats of our nation evolved to be fire dependant and need it to thrive. This means that periodic burning as a result of natural ignition, such as lightning, has caused both plant and animal life to adapt/require these conditions. For example, invasive species may not have the proper defenses to survive periodic burns and so are eliminated; grasslands and prairies are subject to natural burns that preserve their openness and keep them free from encroaching trees; some seeds resting on the forest floor need fire to trigger their germination; and fire returns nutrients locked up in dead plant matter to the soils giving the next generation of plants a better chance to flourish.
Prescribed burning is simply man’s implementation of a tool that nature has been using since the dawn of time. But for generations and indeed continuing today, we have had a mindset of extinguishing natural fires for the interest of preserving public safety. When in actuality, fire is a natural process for promoting habitat health and preventing “wild fires.” Wild fires may occur from the same ignition sources as a natural fire, lightning for example, or from accidental ignition from escaped camp fires, discarded cigarettes, etc. It is the intensity at which they burn and the speed at which they spread that is so alarming. The flames of a controlled burn rarely extend more than but a few feet off the ground. Wild fires on the other hand, driven by high amounts of fuel and pushed by the wind, can extend right up into the canopy and are completely destructive.
Natural fires that are allowed to burn without interruption, reduce the accumulated leaf litter, needles, branches, etc. that fuel the “wild fires” that are so dangerous. This reduction prevents the excess material that fuels high intensity, fast-moving, and incredibly destructive and deadly fires. Prescribed burns are man’s way of replicating this process in areas where it is no longer allowed to occur.
What does this mean for wildlife?
There is literature provided from credible resources about the many benefits prescribed burns provide for wildlife. The most obvious benefits would be for habitat and food. We already discussed the habitat management use of fire, but the regrowth of the forest and vegetation is also of great importance. Depending upon the time of year, subsequent availability of moisture after a fire event, and the region of the country, new growth may be visible within a week of the flames going out. I have personally seen new shoots from the ground and buds opening on understory trees only 5 days after a prescribed burn in Georgia. But that being said, I have also seen parts of a forest lay seemingly barren for almost a month before any sign of new growth was visible.
The regrowth is vital for wildlife. Most of the fauna in the path of the fire will either flee to escape the flames or find shelter underground or overhead. Once the smoke has cleared, these animals will begin to make their return. Song birds and small mammals seem to be the first on the scene attracted by the newly exposed seeds and nuts buried in the leaf litter and insects killed by the heat. Soon after, those that prey on them, and as the new shoots appear larger animals like deer will return.
What des this mean for a hunter?
I guess it all depends on where you hunt, how often prescribed burns occur, and if the wildlife in your area are accustomed to the routine. I know that as a whitetail deer and turkey hunter in Virginia, a spring fire would push the turkeys out of the area for several weeks. Typically by the time they returned, the season was over. The deer returned as soon as the area offered either food or cover for them, but things did not return to “normal” until the following year.
This is now my 2nd season hunting in Georgia more specifically the Redlands WMA. Evidence of a long going prescribed burn regime is everywhere and just 10 days ago a 3,800 acre prescribed burn was performed in the Skull Shoals area. Last season, I heard plenty of turkeys and seen a few deer, mostly does and fawns. This spring, I have heard many gobblers already but that was before the burn. I was told by a local game warden and by other Georgia hunters that the birds will return as soon as the ground stops smoking. I have not heard them yet, but then again last weeks thunderstorms and high winds have not been ideal listening conditions. Hopefully, the warden will be proven correct and I will find a bird tomorrow morning and be ready to chase him this weekend.
I do not know how many years have passed since the burn prior to this one, but the habitat looked ideal for turkey and deer last season, and the squirrels were abundant as well. Although the initial appearance after a prescribed burn may look desolate, the forest recovers fast and will be ready to enjoy in no time.
I am not a forester, wildlife manager, etc. so I can only speak to what I have learned in school, read, and witnessed first hand. For greater depth of explanation for the benefits of prescribed burning and whether or not it may be a good choice for your land management ideas, contact your local DNR office or forest manager. I have provided links to a few resources that I have read and found educational when I moved to Georgia last year.