A Burning Desire

By Dr. Theron M. Terhune, Outreach & Education Director

In the Southeast, and in particular the Red Hills region, prescribed fire is as common as wind, water, and the air we breathe. Fire is one of the basic and most economical tools used by land owners and managers to achieve a myriad of management objectives. Historically, most of North American plant communities evolved with recurring fire and therefore have become dependent on this disturbance for maintenance. Fire scientists believe that the natural fire return interval (or frequency of fire) for much of the Southeast varied from 1-3 years for many prairie, rangeland, grassland and savanna like landscapes which include upland pine ecosystems.

Here in the Red Hills we often speak of fire not in terms of if but when and how often. However, for many areas in the United States this is not the case. In fact, some states issue fire bans preventing landowners, land managers and others from implementing prescribed fire as a management tool, yet research demonstrates that the ecosystem effects of fire cannot be duplicated by other tools or techniques. For many of the lands we manage, fire is not only natural but a necessary part of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. After many years of fire exclusion, however, an ecosystem dependent on periodic fire becomes unhealthy such that trees can become stressed by overcrowding or disease, fire dependent species disappear, and fuels build up and potentially increase the risk of catastrophic wildfire. The lack of fire may also have unintended ecological effects, leading to the loss of habitat for rare and endangered species. On the contrary though, adequate implementation of prescribed fire (i.e., burning at the right time and right place) can positively influence the ecosystem and fire-dependent species by: reducing fuel loads and hazardous fuel conditions; minimizing the spread of pest insects and disease; improve natural forage palatability and nutrition value for game species (e.g., white-tailed deer and wild turkey);  recycle nutrients back to the soil such as carbon sequestration; and promote the growth of trees, wildflowers and other beneficial flora.

I witnessed this firsthand when during our revision of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative (NBCI), a strategic recovery plan for northern bobwhite quail and grassland songbirds, I was fortunate enough to visit 25 states representing a large portion of the bobwhite’s historic and current range. This provided the rare opportunity to observe bobwhite habitat in several different landscape contexts. I learned that quail and many grassland songbirds occur in numerous landscapes and conditions where soil, topography, weather, and vegetation may vary greatly from site to site. However, a common theme was linked to the presence or absence of bobwhites and other grassland birds — fire. Typically, when fire was still a part of the management regime bobwhites and other songbirds were present, but when fire was removed from the system, few-to-none existed. I guess Herbert Stoddard was on to something when he coined the term “Fire Bird”, ‘cause where fire exists there too rests the hope for the bobwhite, but where fire is lacking so too will be the welcoming sound of the “bob-WHITE” call in the spring.

You can help us keep prescribed burning a valuable resource and land management tool. As land stewards, we not only have the responsibility to manage and maintain these ecosystems for future generations, but we also have the opportunity to educate and inform others of what we do and why. Doing so will help to ensure that we can continue to burn for management purposes in the future. Specifically, we must increase the awareness and benefits of prescribed fire as a land management tool. It is my desire to not only provide opportunities to increase the awareness of the impact of prescribed fire as a land management tool, but also provide a deeper, clearer understanding of the ecological impact and benefit. Opportunities to educate and inform about fire and other land management tools may come in various ways, shapes and sizes. Here are just a few such opportunities:

Upcoming Land Manager’s Luncheon on Hardwood Control and Response to Prescribed Fire

On Friday, March 29, we will host a land manager’s luncheon with the focus on hardwood control and response to prescribed fire. Topics will also include smoke management, fuels and fuel reduction, and using post-burn evaluations to effectively management vegetation. Tall Timbers’ Fire Ecologist, Dr. Kevin Robertson, and Fire Ecology Research Biologist, Angie Reid, will present some interesting research findings related to post-burn hardwood re-sprout and fuels management. Please see the announcement flyer for more details on how to sign up. 

NRCS Prescribed Fire Training

During the last week in February, Tall Timbers is hosting 25-30 Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) biologists for a week-long intensive fire training course. Course participants will learn about prescribed fire implementation and safety, creation of fire management plans, ecological benefits of prescribed fire and gain burning experience by participating in 2-3 burns on-site.

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