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Prescribed Burns in Forest Management

May 16, 2018 12:00 PM

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​Prescribed burning, also known as controlled burning, is a forest management practice that dates back millennia.

History of Prescribed Burning

Charcoal remnants and tree ring data show evidence that Native Americans made common use of intentionally set blazes. Their reasons for doing so were diverse:

  • Maintaining grasslands for game animals (e.g. bison)
  • Augmenting conditions for growth of berry plots
  • Keeping areas open for settlements
  • Protecting their villages from wildfire

After the rise of European settlers and subsequent deforestation of northeastern lands during the Industrial Revolution, unchecked wildfires devastated American forests, cities, and towns.

In response, the U.S. Forest Service and many states, including Pennsylvania, adopted fire suppression as standard procedure. Elaborate systems and public awareness campaigns were implemented at federal and state levels to advance this cause.

A relatively recent change in philosophy in forest management has once again established prescribed fire as a legitimate, efficient, and effective tool to achieve management objectives.

Why Are Prescribed Burns Important?

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Post-burn red oak regeneration

DCNR's Bureau of Forestry carries out numerous burns on an annual basis, routinely using prescribed fire to accomplish its goals. From 2010–2015, the bureau averaged 21 controlled burns per year on plots totaling 517 acres in area.

In doing so, the agency:

  • Promotes forest regeneration
  • Encourages the establishment of native plant communities
  • Controls invasive species
  • Reduces the likelihood of intense and uncontrollable future fires

The latter goal is especially important in areas deemed by the bureau to be in the “wildland-urban interface,” decreasing the threat to human life and private property.

The In-Depth Planning and Process

Of course, carrying out a prescribed burn is much more complicated than simply striking a match.

Practitioners must conform to a strict set of regulations outlined in the Pennsylvania Prescribed Burning Practices Act (PDF), as well as to carry out the burn according to Pennsylvania Prescribed Fire Standards (PDF). Pennsylvania law dictates that every controlled burn must be “conducted in compliance with a written prescribed burn plan and under the supervision of a prescribed burn manager.”

The four main prescribed fire standards include:

  • Provide for firefighter and public safety as the first priority
  • Ensure that risk management is incorporated into all prescribed fire activities
  • Use prescribed fire in a safe, carefully planned manner
  • Utilize prescribed fire to achieve specific fire and natural resource management objectives

In addition to heeding the law, fire managers also delve deeply into many other factors related to the burn. They must choose the day and time of the burn with great care and specificity, selecting for prime conditions of wind speed, direction, and relative humidity.

They must be cognizant of smoke generation, seeking to minimize air quality impacts to downwind communities.

It is essential that they accurately allocate personnel and resources on burn day.

Impact on Wildlife

A myth commonly heard is that prescribed fires are extremely dangerous to wildlife. In fact, properly planned burns actually minimize the risk of danger.

Evidence shows that motile species, like mammals and birds, have no trouble moving away from the flames. However, the bureau’s burn managers do take special precautions to protect other, less-ambulatory wildlife. Sensitive den sites and habitats are typically excluded from the intended burn area.

Learn More

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DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry fire personnel reliably show that prescribed fire can be a safe and effective tool in forest management, and Penn’s Woods continue to reap the long-term benefits of this time-honored practice.

To learn more about the Bureau of Forestry’s use of prescribed fire, visit DCNR’s web page on the topic.

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