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Fire in the Forest


Recently, the national news has included coverage of wildfires with significant personal property damage and even loss of life. As a result of these headlines, the viewer may develop a negative opinion of fires in the forest or grassland areas of our country. American Forest Management would like to provide some information on how fire was part of our environment historically, how the exclusion of fire in our environment has made it more dangerous, and how continuing to allow the use of fire, where appropriate, can be beneficial for our forests and open areas.

Fire has always been a natural part of our landscape; the frequency of fires varied by location and position on the landscape but in general was a fairly frequent event, some as often as once a year in many locations. The fires were started by lightning strikes and even the Native Americans purposefully burned their hunting grounds on a periodic basis. Because the fires were fairly frequent, they were low intensity as there was very little fuel to be consumed. The fires burned until they reached natural fire breaks like streams, rivers, areas of low fuel, or until a rain event extinguished them. They were beneficial as they maintained a lush understory layer in the forest and large grasslands across the landscape. These fires replenished the ecosystem and kept them healthy. These healthy lands produced abundant foraging opportunities and wildlife populations.

As we settled the countryside and began to build homesteads, followed by small towns, cities, and now dispersed populations all over the country, fire was excluded from the landscape due to fears of damaging private property. When fires started naturally or by accident, we extinguished them as quickly as possible. This fire exclusion led to a large build-up of fuel over many decades. Fuel is not just on the forest floor but can be a continuous “ladder” of fuel all the way into the tree canopies. Now as a result when fires are started by accident, they can quickly get out of control and lead to the catastrophic widespread damage we see on the news.

It is important to understand that wildfire can potentially be dangerous but prescribed fire in the forest is beneficial. Foresters use fire to prepare land for reforestation, to reduce fuel, to improve wildlife habitat, and to protect and encourage rare plant communities. Certain species depend on fire to survive and thrive. Prescribed fire is pre-planned and prepared for by a professional burn boss. They evaluate each site, the boundaries, neighboring concerns, fuel on the site, and the appropriate weather for the burn day to minimize the risk of a problem. Fire breaks are installed around the burn area to limit the area fire can spread. The burn is completed on a day with appropriate weather, usually by a team of individuals in a systematic way to keep the fire in control and accomplish the goals of the fire. Smoke from the fire can be a concern; most burns occur on days with high ceilings where the smoke will go up and disperse quickly; however, smoke may linger for several days in the general area. Use caution when near recent burn areas and know that these generally short inconveniences have long-term benefits. Learn to recognize a prescribe fire and its purpose and support your neighbors when they are conducting this practice on their lands as they are not just benefiting their property, they are also protecting you.

Property owners that live in areas of wildfire risk should be as proactive as possible and prepare their homes and property to reduce the risk of damage in the event of fire. This can include maintaining a low fuel zone around your home and buildings and not placing fuel tanks and combustible materials nearby. Building and maintaining fire breaks or roads around your property can limit fire spread and make control easier in the event of an emergency. Periodic prescribe fire on your property may also be helpful to limit fuels and reduce risk.

It is a good practice to have an evaluation of your property by a professional, they can look at your property and help you create a management plan to lower your wildfire risk and improve your land at the same time. Know that fire is a natural component of our environment and that good management can help minimize your risk and maximize the benefits of fire on your property.