Prescribed Fire – A Burning Issue
Warm Springs, VA – This is District Ranger Patrick Sheridan from the James River and Warm Springs Ranger District.
A prescribed fire or a controlled burn, as it is sometimes called, is a planned burn used to accomplish specific goals. These goals are documented in a burn plan, or prescription. Land managers use fire as a management tool to improve forest and grassland health.
Fire has a long history of transforming landscapes by influencing vegetation. Lightning caused fires are uncommon in the Appalachians, but Native Americans intentionally set fires for thousands of years. They burned to help open the forest understory, which increased plant diversity, improved browse for wildlife, and made travelling easier. As a result, most of our forest communities have been shaped by this historic fire.
Early European settlers continued to use fire as a tool to shape their surroundings. They used fire to clear land and saw that occasional fires kept ridge tops open and sunny, which increased wild blueberry crops, and provided benefits for grazing livestock. However, as time went on and human populations began to increase, fires began to be seen as destructive and state and federal agencies were created to promote fire suppression.
Over time, this exclusion of fire has led to a dramatic change in our forests. Most of today’s forests have a dense understory, less plant diversity, and are composed largely of fire intolerant species. This change in vegetation has in turn caused a decrease in species diversity with a shift in wildlife species favoring those that tolerate closed canopy forests.
Land managers now recognize that fire used in controlled situations can promote healthy natural systems. A system of low intensity fires can thin crowded forests, resulting in less severe disease and pest outbreaks. Fire promotes native grasses and wildflowers and helps to regenerate oaks, which in turn increases wildlife populations.
Fire benefits upland oak-hickory forests, woodlands, and pine-oak savannahs by increasing the sunlight reaching the ground and promoting seed germination. Also, periodic fires reduce competition of fire intolerant species such as maples, beech, and white pine. Studies of forest history show fire intolerant species were uncommon on these upland areas prior to fire suppression.
Historical records also indicate some plants and animals difficult to find in the Appalachians today were once commonly found. When fire is reintroduced, plants sometimes reappear where they haven’t been found or recorded in decades. Evidence shows a great many plant and animal species respond favorably in a fire-mediated habitat. The controlled use of fire under the direction of skilled resource managers, promotes wildlife and healthy forests.