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February 13, 2009

Prescribed burns at Jocassee Gorges restoring habitat, improving safety

Many species and ecosystems require fire periodically to ensure their survival, and that’s why prescribed burns are a part of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ management of the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges. People in the Upstate might see smoke signals emerging from the mountaintops north of SC 11 in Pickens County in the next month or so.

"The objective of the prescribed burns going on this winter is to maintain the ecological integrity of these lands," said Mark Hall, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist and forest planner, "and to provide for human safety by reducing the amount of fuel, 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.’"

Burning will be done when the weather is suitable to allow for a safe burn, including the rapid rising and dispersal of smoke, Hall 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," Hall said. "Many species and ecosystems are now rare because of fire suppression, and they actually need fire to ensure their survival. We’ve burned about 2,000 acres in the last four years to help restore natural process in the system."

Hall emphasized that since controlled burning requires careful timing and a thorough knowledge of weather and fire behavior, highly trained fire personnel with the DNR and S.C. Forestry Commission will manage and conduct all aspects of the controlled 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," Hall 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 in the last 15 years, due in large part to past fire suppression, underscore the need for prescribed fire."

By using a controlled 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 controlled burns are completed, the homes and properties close to Jocassee Gorges 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 Hall advised that during these controlled burns nearby residents will certainly see and smell smoke. The smoke usually disappears by the end of the day.

"People become upset when there is smoke in the air if they don’t know the reason for the fire," Hall 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."

DNR protects and manages South Carolina’s natural resources by making wise and balanced decisions for the benefit of the state’s natural resources and its people.


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