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What is prescribed fire?

Blog Post created by faithberry Employee on Jun 26, 2019

Did you know that fire in natural areas at the right time and place fire can be good for certain ecosystems?  Many ecosystems across the United States are adapted to fire. Fires occurring at the right time, during the right conditions and at the right place can be restorative to some areas. Some plants need fire to regenerate and flourish, like California chestnut that thrives via fire-induced sprouting, and Jack Pine whose serotinous cones only open during a wildfire, and coffee berry in California whose seeds only sprout after a wildfire.

Many land management agencies are increasingly using prescribed fire not only to help create healthier ecosystems, but also to help create conditions around neighborhoods where a wildfire would burn with less severity and make managing wildfires in the future easier.

I had the opportunity to follow along with a Massachusetts (DCR) Department of Conservation and Recreation crew on a prescribed fire project in Freetown, Massachusetts.  The purpose of the fire was twofold, to control one tree species (white pine), and to help protect the abutting community by reducing the vegetative fuel load. 

The event was well planned and fire suppression resources were strategically staged throughout the burned “unit” (a small area of wildland).  They had also worked closely with a biologist before the burn to study how different species of birds, mammals, and insects might be impacted by a low-intensity fire.  They ensured weather conditions would be right on the day, so that it was not too hot, too windy, too dry and that there was no thermal inversion layer that would cause the local residents to be negatively impacted by smoke.

Once the fire was lighted with drip torches, the fire was carefully monitored and managed so that it stayed within the designated burn zone.  Afterward, I was able to see an area that had been previously burned and see all of the small green plants and other new growth that would provide food and shelter for a variety of species including small oak trees, huckleberry and blueberry bushes that provide food for many animals.

Prescribed fire should only be used as a forest management tool by local, state and federal agencies, tribes, and non-governmental land managing agencies that are well trained, experienced and knowledgeable about how to manage them to create healthier forests and more resilient landscapes. Creating more resilient landscapes is one part of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.  Zachary Prusak, board member with the Association for Fire Ecology shared, "The benefits of applying controlled burns (or prescribed fire) to the landscape are numerous, and include maintaining fire-dependent habitats that often include rare species found nowhere else, increasing the availability of nutrients in soil, and reducing the natural plant-based fuels in environments that surround where people live, so that when a fire occurs, the fire intensity is lower, and so easier to manage or control." 

The other two components of this strategy include; creating fire-adapted communities and improving wildfire response.  Learn more about how your efforts can contribute to creating healthier and more resilient communities in wildfire-prone regions today.

Photo credits: Faith Berry, NFPA

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