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

May 20, 2011

Growing-season burns a natural ecological process in South Carolina

If you see or smell smoke near one of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources' heritage preserves this spring and summer, it may be coming from a prescribed fire.

Prescribed burns (also called controlled burns) are generally conducted in the dormant season, mostly in late winter and very early spring. But periodic burns in the growing season can improve habitat in ways dormant season burns cannot. Growing-season burns, which are conducted after the new leaves appear in the spring, are much more effective in controlling undesirable hardwoods, and are key in restoring and maintaining the herbaceous vegetation so crucial to brood-rearing for species like bobwhite quail and wild turkey.

The herbaceous native vegetation stimulated by growing-season prescribed burns, especially bunch-grasses and legumes, provides excellent cover and insect foraging areas for turkey poults and quail chicks, and for hens of both species. About 90 percent of the diet of both young turkeys and bobwhite quail during the first few weeks after they hatch consists of insects, which provide vital protein for early development of feathers and muscle.

For more information on growing-season burns, visit the National Wild Turkey Federation website or the Longleaf Alliance website or the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council.

According to Johnny Stowe, S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wildlife biologist and heritage preserve manager and member of the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council, the Indians were the state's first land managers. Native Americans burned lands statewide for millennia, but lightning also was a source of landscape-level fires. The Southeastern United States has the highest incidence of lightning strikes in North America, and most lightning strikes coincide with late spring and early- to mid-summer thunderstorms. Some of these strikes start fires, and of these fires, some of them are not extinguished by rainfall. Back before the landscape was intensively fragmented and before active fire suppression was necessary to protect property, a relatively few lightning-ignited fires could burn for weeks, or even months, burning thousands of acres in a mosaic pattern sculpted by wind, topography, humidity and fuel factors. This mosaic, or patchwork pattern of micro-habitats, is ideal for many species of wildlife.

The main benefit from May-June burns is probably the excellent hardwood control that results, according to Stowe. Once hardwoods leaf-out, they are much more likely to be injured or killed, both stems and roots, by fire. Winter burns tend to only top-kill hardwoods, and often do not even do that, but rather merely prune the lower limbs. Top-killed trees re-sprout vigorously each year, and may do so for decades.

Clemson University researchers found over a 43-year period at the Santee Experimental Forest in Berkeley County that dormant season burns yield dramatically different results than growing season burns. Their work revealed that summer burns greatly reduced, and even eliminated hardwood stems, while winter burns tended to only top-kill hardwoods—and even worse—they favored sweetgum, a fast-growing and generally undesirable species (in open woodlands) that sprouts prolifically after fire. Moreover, annual winter burns provide sprouts from top-killed hardwoods a full growing season to recover from fire, and the many surviving root systems produce larger numbers of sprouts after each fire.

Prescribed fire managers unfamiliar with burning outside winter months should consult a Registered Forester, Consulting Forester, Certified Wildlife Biologist or other professional who has experience with growing season burns.

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