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December 16, 2009

Prescribed burns improve safety, restore habitat on preserves

Many species and ecosystems require fire periodically to ensure their survival, and that's why prescribed burns are scheduled for many of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' heritage preserves next year.
"The objective of the prescribed burns is to maintain the ecological integrity of these lands," said Johnny Stowe, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist and heritage preserve manager, "and to provide for human safety by reducing the amount of fuel on the preserves, thereby reducing the chance of catastrophic wildfire. For many of these ecosystems, it's not a matter of 'if' they will burn, but rather 'when.' We like to choose the 'when.'"
The South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council is promoting public understanding about the benefits and importance of prescribed fire. The Prescribed Fire Council is composed of representatives from various conservation agencies and institutions.
"Prescribed fire is a multi-cultural tradition and ritual and a key part of our heritage in South Carolina," Stowe said. "The Indians burned here for thousands of years, and both African and European immigrants brought with them from their native lands a long established history of using fire to manipulate the landscape."
Prescribed burning at state heritage preserves will be done when the weather is suitable to allow for a safe burn, including the rapid rising and dispersal of smoke, Stowe said. Once weather conditions are right for the burn, it should take four to eight hours for the active burning to be completed, although scattered stumps, logs and dead trees may smolder slowly through the night. Fires will be surrounded by fire breaks, which include existing preserve roads, streams, plowed fire breaks and breaks put in with hand tools in sensitive areas.
"Through the centuries, many native plants, animals and habitats in the Southeastern United States have adapted to the presence of recurring fire," Stowe said. "Many species and ecosystems are now rare because of fire suppression, and they actually need fire to ensure their survival." Fire can produce superior habitat for species such as wild turkey and white-tailed deer, and is practically essential for bobwhite quail as well as rare species like the red-cockaded woodpecker.
A good example of an ecosystem dependent on fire is the longleaf pine community, present on most of the preserves slated for burning. Longleaf pine forests once covered about 90 million acres in the Southeast, but today only about four million remain. In the absence of fire, longleaf pine and its associated plants and animals, some of which are rare and occur only in longleaf pine ecosystems, are replaced by other species.
Scientists and land managers are increasingly aware of the importance of fire for maintaining a healthy longleaf pine forest. "The Longleaf Alliance—a group of longleaf enthusiasts comprising land managers, landowners, researchers, and others—has made monumental strides over the last few years toward restoring longleaf pine ecosystems," Stowe said.
Stowe emphasized that since prescribed burning requires careful timing and a thorough knowledge of weather and fire behavior, highly trained fire personnel with the DNR will manage and conduct all aspects of the prescribed burns. The S.C. Forestry Commission will help with many of the burns.
"Besides the ecological benefits of prescribed fire, it also has the added benefit of reducing fuel on the forest floor and lessening the chances of a catastrophic fire, which can threaten homes and people," Stowe said. "Because fire has been suppressed for so long in some places, you get dangerous buildups of fuel and increase the chances for a wildfire that can destroy property and lives. The wildfires we've seen across the United States recently are due in large part to past fire suppression and they underscore the need for prescribed fire."
By using a prescribed burn—when wind, temperature and humidity conditions are appropriate to remove some of the forest fuel like leaves, pine needles and twigs—fire managers can greatly reduce the chances of a catastrophic wildfire. After prescribed burns are completed, the homes and properties close to heritage preserves will be much less likely to be in the path of a wildfire, because the fuel is reduced or eliminated.
Optimal weather conditions will be chosen for smoke dispersal, but Stowe advised that during these prescribed burns nearby residents will certainly see and smell smoke. The smoke usually disappears by the end of the day.
"People sometimes get upset when there is smoke in the air if they don't know the reason for the fire," Stowe said. "That's why we're trying to get the word out about prescribed fire. If we carefully plan and conduct a burn when weather conditions favor smoke dispersal, this reduces smoke-related problems. Dealing with a little bit of smoke now is infinitely better than trying to control a raging wildfire later."
State heritage preserves scheduled for prescribed burns in 2010 include:

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