I used to believe that fire was a bad thing. I was a member of the Smokey the Bear fan club in the days when “only you can prevent forest fires”. My mother even had me convinced that if you played with fire, you’d wet the bed! To say the least, I was skeptical that fire could be used to manage habitats. My attitude has changed. Over the past few years, I have observed that there is a distinct difference between fires, especially a wildfire and a prescribed fire. A wildfire is just that - wild. They seem to happen when the weather conditions are the worst - dry, hot, windy. They are uncontrolled and can do a lot of property damage. Most wildfires are caused by arson and escaped debris burning. Prescribed fires, on the other hand, are planned. Weather conditions such as recent rainfall, humidity, temperature, wind speed, and wind direction are all monitored to keep a prescribed fire in control and to a low intensity. Leaves, tree limbs, and other items that might catch fire, are cleared from around the area to form a fire control line. This control line helps keep the fire in the proposed burn area by eliminating things that could carry the fire over into other spots. Plans even include the number of folks on the control line and amount and type of fire equipment needed. If these requirements are not met, then the match isn’t lit. There are only a few days during the spring, when all of these conditions are met, and prescribed burning can be done.
Prescribed fire is used in the Ozarks to restore and manage glades, prairies, and savannas. Without fire, these habitats become overgrown with trees (especially cedar) and shrubs. They lose their value as important areas for wildlife, such as turkeys, that use them for nesting and rearing young. Prescribed fire benefits native grasses by removing some trees that shade out the grasses as well as removing the dead plant material that covers seeds, allowing the seeds to come up. Prescribed fire often stimulates growth of grasses and rapid re-sprouting of berry producing plants, increasing the food available for wildlife over time. These plants are critical in providing spring/summer food sources. They also attract insects which are a vital food source for many birds at a time when they are rearing their broods.
Most prescribed burns are conducted in the early spring when weather conditions help keep the fire to a low intensity. This has relatively little impact on the larger trees which, if lost in large numbers, could affect the amount of acorns and nuts available for wildlife. In addition, burning during this period alleviates most potential disruptions to ground-nesting wildlife. While there will always be a few exceptions (i.e., early nesters) that may be lost, the timing is picked to reduce this risk while still getting the desired response from the plant community.
Prescribed fire is an efficient tool for managing open lands. While other methods, such as brush-hogging, could be used to keep them from being overgrown by trees and shrubs, only fire has been shown to alter plant communities in favor of plant types that are used by wildlife. The use of prescribed fire allows conservation managers to treat enough acres to have a significant effect on habitat to benefit wildlife populations.
Although the use of prescribed fire is a fairly new tool in the habitat “management tool box”, fire isn’t new to the landscape. Fire is a disturbance which has shaped the plant and animal communities of this area for thousands of years. Dendrochronologists, studying the frequency of fire scars in tree cross-sections have found that parts of the Ozarks burned about every 18 years from 1580 to 1700. From 1701 until 1820 fires came through about every 12 years. In the period between 1820 and 1940 parts of the Ozarks burned every 3.7 years.
When used to meet specific goals and conducted under strict guidelines, fire can have dramatic positive effects on wildlife populations and most importantly the habitats that support them.
Only a small percent of habitat is treated with prescribed fire each year. Prescribed fire sites are burned on a rotation to ensure that there is always an adequate amount of unburned plant growth available to provide good nesting sites. Most prescribed fire generates a mosaic pattern of vegetation in an area with all the existing vegetation seldom being removed. This burn pattern helps increase diversity within the habitat that is being treated as well as across the landscape where different habitat patches are being treated in different manners. On most managed areas prescribed fire isn’t used because it isn’t an appropriate tool for the management of other equally important habitats and uses of the resource.
Prescribed fire is a tool in the “management tool box” for restoring and managing glades, prairies, and savannas. When planned, monitored, and used safely this tool can have dramatic positive effects on wildlife and the habitats that support them.