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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

February 16, 2011

Prescribed fire has many benefits, but practice faces many challenges

Prescribed fire as a land management tool has deep and ancient roots in South Carolina's heritage, but conducting prescribed burns is becoming more and more of a challenge.

Properly conducted prescribed burns (also called "controlled burns") have multiple benefits, according to Johnny Stowe, wildlife biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Prescribed fires help restore and maintain vital habitat for wildlife, including bobwhite quail and other grassland birds, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, gopher tortoises, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Besides the many wildlife species that require fire-dependent habitat, many plants thrive only in regularly burned forests.

"Fire-maintained lands also have a special unique beauty," Stowe said. "The open, park-like vistas of properly-burned lands appeal too many of us."

Stowe can be reached via e-mail at stowej@dnr.sc.gov, by calling (803) 419-9374 in Columbia or for more information check the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council.

Prescribed fire enhances public safety, according to Stowe. Prescribed fires reduce or even eliminate fuel loads, thereby making wildfire on that area impossible or unlikely for some time afterwards. And wildfires are less destructive on areas that have been prescribed burned. Wildfires often either lose intensity or go out when they reach areas that have been prescribed burned. It is much better to deal with a predictable amount and direction of smoke at a known time under prescribed conditions in a planned fire that reduces forest fuels, than to deal with a wildfire on that same land, a wildfire that may burn under dangerous weather conditions such as in a drought and in low humidity and high winds.

Prescribed fire is also, along with hunting and agriculture, an essential part of the heritage and character of the South. Every culture that has ever lived in the South has had an ancient tradition of woods burning. The Indians transformed the Southern landscape for thousands of years with fire, and the Africans and Europeans brought with them from the Old World the time-tested practice of using fire to mold the land to their needs.

Sadly, according to Stowe, one of the main threats to prescribed burning is the legacy of Smokey Bear. "Smokey is one of the best-known icons in the United States," Stowe said, "and while part of Smokey's message always has been, is, and always will be wise—that no one should carelessly or maliciously use fire under any circumstances—Smokey's legacy is that several generations of Americans view forest fires as universally destructive."

Another key threat to the Southern tradition of prescribed burning as a land management tool, according to Stowe, is South Carolina's increasingly urban population. Many South Carolinians now come from backgrounds that did not expose them to rural land management activities such as burning, hunting and agricultural operations.

Land fragmentation, or an urbanizing landscape, goes hand-in-hand with our urbanizing society. Many fire-maintained tracts that once were rural and isolated now abut heavily traveled roads, and commercial and residential "development." Smoke on roads and other sensitive areas are perhaps the biggest hurdles that prescribed burners face.

Air quality is another obstacle, Stowe said. Although air pollution problems mainly emanate from automobile and other engines and coal-fired power plants, these causes are harder to regulate, and so smoke from prescribed burning becomes a convenient "whipping boy."

"With prescribed fire, we now stand at a crossroad with a great challenge and opportunity facing us," Stowe said. "At stake are who we are culturally, how much we value the natural Southern landscape, and public safety. We must always heed Smokey's call to never use fire carelessly or with ill intent. But let's rekindle and preserve the ancient Southern flame that is now called prescribed fire. By adhering to the principles of carefully burning only within the constraints of the law, we protect our land and culture, as well as ourselves and future generations."


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