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Prescribed Fire - Its Role in Forest Health


By Chad P. Masley, Wildlife Biologist


Prescribed fire, or controlled burning, plays many roles in the management and manipulation of forestland. Prescribed fire is the controlled application of fire to naturally occurring vegetation under exacting weather conditions, in a definite place, for a specific purpose, to achieve particular results. It plays an important role in improving the health and diversity of certain forestland types. In turn, habitat is made available for wildlife that would otherwise not exist. Controlled burning is a valuable and irreplaceable management tool foresters and wildlife managers have come to utilize to meet desired management objectives.

Fire can be detrimental or advantageous. Several aspects of fire, such as heat, intensity, timing, and frequency, can be manipulated to meet a desired objective. To maintain a healthy ecosystem, the biological characteristics within a stand are changed through manipulation. Used correctly, fire is a good tool to accomplish land management objectives.

There are several reasons for using prescribed fire. Fuel is abundant in pine stands, and fire is a good tool to reduce the fuel load within a stand to prevent uncontrollable outbreaks of wildfires. Site-prep fires reduce debris loads after a harvest event and enable easier planting, giving the seedlings a head start on their competition. Fire in a developing pine stand will reduce competing vegetation and improve wildlife habitat. Fire set within developing stands will also open up the sand, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor and stimulate the growth of new forbs and browse. This will benefit numerous wildlife species by adding diversity to the food supply. Other fire-adapted plant and animal species will begin to thrive as well.

Prescribed fire impacts multiple environmental factors such as soil, air, water, wildlife, and fire-dependent plant species. It is a great tool to accomplish multiple benefits. These fires can also have an impact on the public. Public opinion is powerful, and the general public may not understand the difference between wildfire and prescribed fire or the different impacts the two have on the environment. The manner in which prescribed fire is handled and manipulated should always be professional so as to positively impact the environment and to aid the public in understanding its benefits.

There are several management techniques and tools that are used to manipulate a forest to meet specific objectives. When it comes to forest health and maintaining fire-dependent ecosystems, there is no better tool than prescribed fire. The use of prescribed fire is a great tool for silvicultural, ecological, and wildlife management purposes.

Here in Alabama, foresters and wildlife managers encourage the use of prescribed fires as a management tool to promote a healthy forest and to improve wildlife habitats. The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources strives to provide healthy and diverse forest types for wildlife to thrive and the public to enjoy.

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