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Winter prescribed fire in Lee County, Alabama. Taken at the Mary Olive Thomas Demonstration Forest by Dr. Becky Barlow

In Alabama, January through mid-March is a great time to use fire as a tool for land management.

Southeast is a Fire-Related Ecosystem

Before humans moved into the Southeast, lightning during summer thunderstorms set numerous fires. Because there were no humans, the fires burned until it ran into water or burned itself out. Normally storms outside of the summer months do not cause ground fires. This is because in cooler storms, lightning is less likely and the leaf litter layer is less likely to dry soon after the storm. Another reason for these regularly occurring natural fires is the resin within southern pines. Highly flammable fuels are going to burn easily and frequently.

As the first people to visit this part of North America observed, fire did not kill all of the vegetation, it merely changed it. If the landscape was a dry location, fires frequented the area. The land was covered with mostly annual and perennial weeds, forbs, grasses, and pine trees in an open savanna-like ecosystem. In the Black-belt area of the state, fire-tolerant oaks replaced the pines, but the same open ‘park-like’ savannah occurred.

In 1540, Hernando DeSoto discovered this fire ecosystem while traveling through Alabama and described it in his exploration field notes. Wet landscapes, like creek and river bottoms and north facing mountain slopes, burned less frequently and contained more of our shrub and hardwood tree species. Fire was the driving force that fashioned the Southeast.

Fire Suppression

In the early 1900s, use of fire as a large-scale ecosystem mover decreased. Later, as open range laws switched to fence laws, fires had to be contained within a landowner’s property. Seventy years of fire suppression has left the Southeast with an unhealthy forest.

What were once large majestic southern pine savannas, are now hardwood-encroached, skinny pine stands.  The savanna-like ecosystem, with its superior grassland diversity, supported roaming herds of woodland bison and elk. It was transformed into a nutrient deficient, hardwood understory.

The missing ingredient was fire. Fire cleans out the underbrush from the woods allowing the pines and fire-tolerant hardwoods to grown to their potential. Bringing fire back on to the land also helps the dormant flower, grass, and weed seeds to germinate and replace the tangle of briars and hardwoods. Prescribed fire also helps with human settlements. Burning the forest on a regular basis reduces the fuel on the ground (fuel load). By reducing the fuel load in one area or another helps a wildfire burn out.

Tips for Burning

If you are thinking about using prescribed fire on your property, remember to contact your local Forestry Commission office to obtain a permit.

While it is harder to burn in urban areas, it is not against the law. In the Birmingham five-county area, agricultural & silvicultural (forestry) fires are only allowed during the dormant growing season. Growing season burns are prohibited because of our normally hazy skies in the summer. Smoke from fires added to the atmosphere during the summer could cause respiratory problems for some folks.

If there are any structures on the property, remember to be Firewise. If there are structures in the wooded areas wanting to be burned, make sure to protect them from the fire. Clear any brush away and rake the leaves off the roof of the buildings. The best protection from fire is a fire. Burn the fuels around the buildings (leaves, brush, etc.) before burning the larger area. This will help prevent fire from damaging the buildings.

These and other tips can be found on the National Fire Protection Association website at www.firewise.org. If you live in the woods, more tips on protecting your property are available on the Alabama Forestry Commission’s website at www.forestry.alabama.gov.

Remember, fire can be a friendly tool that needs to be employed and respected.

Additional Information

A Pictorial Comparison of Seasonal Timing and Frequency of Prescribed Fire In Longleaf Pine Stands

Prescribed Fire Promoting Better Forest and Wildlife Management

Prescribed Fire the Fuels Component

Prescribed Fire Weather

Introduction to Prescribed Fire Ignition Techniques

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