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Winter Prescribed Fire Season Sows Seeds for Spring Renewal

Benefits of Prescribed Fire Are Numerous

RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. — Winter months are a primary time for prescribed burning in the National Forests in Arkansas and Oklahoma.  The vegetation is dormant, the temperature is cooler, and humidity is generally a bit higher.  In short, the conditions necessary for prescribed burning often present themselves during this time of the year.

For a myriad of environmental reasons, National Forest fire managers make use of this tool in the forests and mountains of the Ouachita and Ozark-St. Francis.  These include increasing wildlife habitat, reducing the occurrence and severity of wildfires, promoting new growth, and inhibit non-native invasive species.

Mankind has used fire to cook, heat and hunt since the dawn of human civilization.  Fire is one of nature’s most essential agents of change.  Nearly every region in the country has some kind of fire-dependent plant or tree. Many plants have evolved adaptations that protect them as a species against the effects of fire, and some absolutely must have fire to survive.  When fires burn in intervals appropriate to their ecosystem, they consume leaf litter and other ground vegetation, like dead wood. This can trigger a rebirth of forests, helping to maintain native plant species.

Over time, humans moved into fire prone areas, resulting in the role of fire being diminished in areas that crave it.   “More and more, people are living in the path of wildfires.  We obviously must suppress those fires,” said Josh Graham, Fire Management Staff Officer for the Ozark-St. Francis and Ouachita National Forests in Arkansas and Oklahoma.  “When we reintroduce fire in a controlled environment, under the right conditions, we start achieving the benefits of fire’s natural role in the environment, and accomplish it in a manner safer for humans.”

Enter prescribed burning, the controlled application of fire by a team of trained fire managers under specified conditions that helps restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire.  Prescribed fires help reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on our lands and surrounding communities by reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs and trees, referred to as fuels.  It also encourages new growth of native vegetation, inhibits the encroachment of non-native plants and animals and maintains the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire.

According to Graham, most forests and grasslands require multiple prescribed fires over a number of years to fully reach management objectives, but even a single fire can provide multiple benefits. “One prescribed fire can reduce wildfire occurrence and severity by reducing fuels, improve habitat for some wildlife species, reduce competition, enhance appearance, and improve access.”

It’s no secret that forests play an important role in climate change, but only recently have we identified the role that prescribed fire may play.  Trees store carbon, reducing the amount added to the atmosphere by factories, vehicles, and other sources.  However, when these large trees burn down in a wildfire, that carbon is returned to the atmosphere.   It can take decades for trees to regrow large enough to store the amount of carbon emitted in a single catastrophic wildfire.

The good news is that we are able to protect larger trees and significantly reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere by major wildfires when we reintroduce prescribed fire into our ecosystems.  Since prescribed fire is applied under favorable conditions, it removes underbrush and small trees, protecting these larger, carbon storing trees and opening up the surrounding forest to allow them more room to grow.

On an important side note, the smoke from a planned prescribed burn is significantly less than an out of control wildfire, which may burn for days, weeks, or even months.  “We are sensitive to the fact that smoke has an impact on people, particularly those with respiratory conditions and allergies,” said Graham.  “Smoke directions are modeled based on weather predictions from the National Weather Service in order to avoid heavier populated areas.  If the winds are predicted to impact a sensitive area, the burn is postponed.”

To learn more about prescribed fire, check out the following resources online at www.goodfire.org.

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