Burning the forest a little so it doesn’t burn a lot

By Tom Lollis and Stephanie Beard

Prescribed fireFighting fire with fire has gained new meaning in forest management. A generation ago, Smokey Bear cautioned people to prevent forest fires. Now, the S.C. Prescribed Fire Council encourages forest landowners to use prescribed fire as the most effective and economical protection against devastating wildfires.

Prescribed fires reduce accumulated leaf litter, dead limbs and brush that can fuel wildfires. The state’s ecosystems require regular burning to remain healthy, said Stephanie Beard, outreach and education coordinator for the council. Controlled burns improve the growth of longleaf pine and provide open areas needed to grow food for bobwhite quail, wild turkey, white-tailed deer and wildlife.

Currently, about 500,000 acres are burned each year in South Carolina; but that is only about half the acreage that could benefit from prescribed fire.
“We burn the woods at one-year or three-year intervals, either in the winter or spring,” said Chuck Gresham, a forest scientist at Clemson’s Baruch Institute of Coastal Ecology and Forest Science in Georgetown. Of nine research treatments, the annual growing season burn is the most intense management technique and also the most effective for hardwood control.

The use of fire as a management tool began thousands of years ago with Native Americans. Early European settlers adopted their techniques. In fact, periodic burns were a normal part of forest management until the late 1920s when the Smokey Bear campaign began.

But forests eventually burn, whether the fire is prescribed or not, Gresham said. Lightning or people burning debris can ignite dangerous and costly wildfires such as the ones experienced around the country in recent years.

The S.C. Prescribed Fire Council is seeking to prevent wildfires in South Carolina through controlled burns. Members include the state Forestry Commission, the Department of Natural Resources, Clemson University, other state and federal agencies, and private organizations.

For more information: www.clemson.edu/rxfire/