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Prescribed Fire as a Habitat Management Tool

The natural world looked far different 100 years ago. Fire whether it was started by lightening or intentionally by man kept many areas of land in an early successional plant stage (forbs and grasses). Woodlands and scattered trees only became established in areas of higher rainfall, where fires were less likely to occur or in topographical areas such as river bottoms or deep valleys where standing water or higher humidity kept fire from burning as widespread or as intensely. Numerous sources state that population estimates for white-tailed deer were likely 20-30 million prior to European settlement on the North American continent. Obviously no scientific studies were conducted even after early settlement to confirm this. However, based on population estimation protocols since that time it seems highly likely that could very well have been the case. Early explorers and settlers frequently encountered turkeys and Bob-white quail as well. What does that have to do with anything you might ask? Well long before modern row crop agriculture and food plots wildlife existed in very high numbers, likely higher than even now. How was that possible? All 3 species do best in plant communities where early successional plants are found. The presence of fire makes that possible. High densities of mature trees (climax plant community type) and thick, areas of grass filled with dense layers of duff and lacking forbs are not productive for deer, turkeys or quail. Some type of disturbance to these habitat types keeps a portion in early successional plant communities which benefits wildlife. Prescribed fire is a great tool for accomplishing this. Routine, controlled burns benefit more than wildlife they also make our human environments safer. Lack of smaller, controlled fires is one of the leading reasons for wildfires that burn out of control for days if not weeks taking human lives and costing huge financial losses. Prescribed fire has many benefits and actually no negatives if done in a proper manner in terms of wildlife habitat.

Prescribed Fire in a Grassland

Controlled, prescribed fires work to set back plant communities to a point where young tree seedlings, woody browse close to the ground and forbs have a chance to germinate and become established. All of which serve as better food sources both directly and indirectly for deer, turkey and quail. The interval needed between fire occurrences is dependent on the species of vegetation present and goal of your wildlife habitat improvement plan. Planning a prescribed burn in a grassland habitat is generally easier to do than in a woodland setting. in order to have a successful burn there must be enough vegetation present to actually carry the fire. In a grassland there is typically enough fuel to carry the fire and get a fairly complete burn. Fire breaks are often more easily put in place through mowing or tillage. Fuels (plant material) are also consumed quite quickly by the fire, and once the fuel is consumed the fire extinguishes itself fairly quickly. A large block of grassland can be burned easily in less than an hour. Grassland fires can be monitored and maintained with less manpower. Woodland prescribed fires can be more challenging, especially those with dense stands of trees for the same reasons that grassland burns are fairly easy to accomplish. Due to high levels of canopy closure, shade may keep adequate levels of fuel from forming. It may be necessary to kill mature trees through other methods and then allow a couple of growing seasons to take place in order to get enough fuel to burn successfully. Fire breaks may require the use of heavy machinery or more use of hand tools to create a fire break. Heavy fuels such as downed logs may burn for days if not longer and require monitoring to prevent fires from igniting from embers outside your fire lines. More manpower is often needed to monitor fire lines and accessing a problem becomes more challenging should a problem develop. Developing a plan and implementing it before the fire is started is the 1st step in a successful and safely conducted burn.

The purpose of this blog is not to give you all the details of how to conduct a prescribed burn, but more so a general overview of the impacts of burning. Most states have workshops or courses that go into great detail about how to plan for and conduct a burn. Always consult the laws that impact the area you intend to burn in. Creating the "burn prescription" is always the best approach to conducting a burn. Burn prescriptions are a good check list for making sure everything is well thought out before the fire is lit. Burn prescriptions outline such things as appropriate weather conditions, amount of equipment and manpower that should be present, map of the area to burn, sequence for lighting the fire, emergency contact information, etc.. Plans can be tailored to your needs. Plans also serve as a level of liability protection in some locations if a fire was to leave the area you had planned to burn. It is proof that you gave forethought to burning and took reasonable measures to conduct it safely. Every state has its own description as to the level of liability, agricultural based states tend to offer more protection to landowners conducting prescribed burns. Once you have a written plan you can begin planning for the actual burning event.

Fire breaks are definitely one of the most important considerations to make and implement prior to conducting the burn. Fire breaks can be either tilled strips or green strips of vegetation (such as clover). Roads and water bodies can also serve as fire breaks. The key to fire breaks is to make sure that a connective line of combustible material does not extend from one side of the break to the other. In essence a path for fire to continue over the fire break. Closely mowed grass strips with the duff removed can also be sufficient. Generally, fire breaks should be 2-3 times as wide as the height of the fuel that you are burning. Tall dead trees next to fire breaks should be removed and very flammable and heavy sparking fuel sources such as cedar trees should be removed if they are close to fire breaks. Weather conditions are also critical when deciding when to implement the controlled burn. High winds or extremely low humidity levels can create much hotter fires that spread quickly if containment is lost. However, having predictable, stable winds and dry enough conditions for fuel to burn for the duration of the fire are also necessary to be successful. Finally, have adequate help on hand to monitor fire breaks and to address unplanned fire issues. Timing of the controlled burn effects the impact of the fire on your habitat.

Road as a Fire Break

Dormant season fires are often less stressful on vegetation you are not wanting to permanently remove. Keep in mind a plant's dormant season is not always directly related to Spring and the 1st hard killing frost of Fall. Whereas growing season burns can either be a benefit by killing or weakening growing vegetation that you want to remove. Promoting native warm season grasses in areas of cool season grass infestations is best done in the time of year when the cool season grasses are actively growing and the warm season grasses have yet to start growing or have already finished growing for the season. Burning when trees are leafed out causes more tree damage by scorching the leaf tissue if the heat is high enough to reach them. Removing combustible materials from the base of trees that you want to reduce damage to is also important. Temperatures over 140 degrees can cause permanent damage to tree trunks. The duration and level of heat that vegetation is exposed to determines the amount of plant material killed and removed from the landscape. In the next blog I will talk more about direct responses of plant types to fire and how prescribed fire is being implemented on Maple Hill Farm.

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