Is prescribed burning a good idea?

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 27, 2001

Prior to the introduction of European settlers in North America, much of the territory now known as Alabama was regularly subjected to fire. The land burned due to both natural fire occurrences and the use of fire by indigenous peoples. Thunderstorms with little to no rain, but plenty of lightning strikes, would roll across the land and start frequent fires. These fires could burn for days on end, clearing out excessive underbrush and creating prime habitat for various plant and animal species. Occasionally a fire might burn through an area that had a tremendous buildup of fuels and completely destroy the timber growing on that particular spot. Indigenous peoples used fire as a hunting aid, to clear cropland, and to improve visibility around permanent camps.

Since the 1930s, through an aggressive campaign by the forestry community, wildfires have been significantly reduced. Smoky Bear has been effective. Today, most wildfires are quickly extinguished and cover only small acreages.

Those campaigns focused on the destructiveness of fires. However, fire used as a tool to improve wildlife habitat and timber stands can be beneficial. To obtain the benefits, the fires must be planned ahead of time. by a properly trained individual. Planning the bum takes into account the goal(s) to accomplish, the time of year needed to bum, fuel types, fuel continuity, weather conditions and wind direction for smoke management. The area to be burned checked and a written prescription made for the bum. The goals of a prescribed bum are usually an attempt to mimic the natural effects of fire before man altered the landscape with manmade firebreaks and prior to the drive starting in the 1930s to prevent and extinguish wildfires. Many species evolved with fire, and when fire is removed, the habitat needed for their existence may no longer exist.

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Is prescribed burning a good idea? When properly planned and conducted under exacting weather conditions by someone with training and knowledge of fire behavior and smoke management, prescribed burning is a benefit to both wildlife and plant communities. Under those conditions prescribed burning is a great idea.