Florence, AL, USA — A woods or grass fire burning out of control can kill animals, destroy their habitat and leave ugly scars on the countryside.
When used as a tool, fire can enrich wildlife habitat, encourage new plants to grow in the forest and even help prevent wildfires.
Michael Cook, district fire management officer for Bankhead National Forest, said fires used under controlled conditions are an important management tool for foresters and wildlife managers.
“There are some species of animals, such as turkey and deer, that like the habitat provided by open areas within a forest. Prescribed burning of the forest from time to time allows us to provide that type of habitat,” Cook said. “There are some seeds that sprout only after being exposed to fire.”
Bankhead Forest, located in Lawrence, Winston and Franklin counties, is in the midst of an aggressive prescribed burning program. Cook said plans call for 14,000 acres to be burned under controlled conditions this winter. The fires will range from 77 acres up to 1,500 acres.
Cook said the intentionally set fires are started only when humidity levels are high and wind speeds are low. That makes the blazes easier to control. Before the fires are started, foresters bulldoze around the area being burned to help contain the blaze.
Cook said the controlled fires burn away leaves, pine straw and other debris on the forest floor that could fuel wildfires. Unlike a wildfire, the low-burning, slow-moving controlled fires do not kill large trees.
U.S. Forest Service officials plan to burn about 85,000 acres in Alabama’s four national forests this winter to reduce forest fuels, help plant and animal habitats and protect communities in and near the forests.
One of the goals of the controlled fires in Bankhead Forest is to encourage the growth of hardwood trees in areas where pines have grown in the past, Cook said.
Greg Born, fire management officer for the National Forests in Alabama, said by reducing some of the brush and midstory trees, controlled fires open the forest floor to sunlight, which allows new trees and plants to grow.
Cook said the lush growth of new plants following a controlled fire provides food for deer and other wildlife.
The Forest Service is not the only government agency that uses fire as part of its land management plans.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages Key Cave National Wildlife Refuge near Florence, frequently burns the grasslands there to enhance wildlife habitat.
Rob Hurt, a biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said controlled fires are a major component of the management plan for Key Cave Wildlife Refuge. He said periodic fires prevent trees and other woody vegetation from becoming established on portions of the 1,060-acre refuge being managed as grassy areas. In addition, the fires burns away old grass and encourage new growth.
After controlled fires at the refuge, bright green grass soon sprouts from the blackened earth. Deer and other animals will venture into the burned areas to feed on the young grass.
Some of the native grasses being grown at the refuge only germinate after a fire.
During the controlled burns, heavy smoke could reduce visibility in the area around the fire, and officials urge caution when driving in areas of limited visibility.