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Prescribe Fire: The Vaccine of Pine Forests

beginners management Aug 12, 2019
The fall and winter season is coming quickly upon us which means two things for the southeast forest owners: prescribe burning and planting. Today though, I’m going to focus on prescribe fire and the importance it has within pine forests and ecosystems.
So you’ve planted your new asset – now you’re looking at your mid-management practice options to keep your forest not only as healthy as possible, but also to give you the maximum return. You may also be asking yourself WHY should you be doing anything yet or thinking it …. It doesn’t “look” like it needs a practice. You can see through the pine rows still and nothing is taller than you yet… there isn’t a duff litter layer 12 inches high… so do I reallllyyy need to be thinking about what I should be doing?
The answer: IF you want to be an active manager . . . then YES, absolutely.

You should at the very least be evaluating your property on what could be done and what should be done now and in the future.

Doing your mid-management upfront, before you have any trouble is like getting your vaccine shots. There are a lot of diseases and illnesses in the world we are susceptible to, and to help our bodies better defend themselves we take vaccines before we are encountered with the disease itself. It’s possible we will NEVER encounter that disease, but the idea is to be proactive in our preventative measures. This doesn’t mean we won’t get sick or the illness, but the idea is IF we do get what we were vaccinated against it won’t be as terrible or detrimental to us. This is because we’ve been proactive at preparing our body to fight against it by getting vaccinated, and as long as we stay relatively healthy, we should be able to defend against.
Now there are a host of mid-management options from herbicides, disking, mulching, and then prescribe burning. The first few can be rather pricey, depending on the amount of acreage you are attempting to manage and also the condition of the forest when you start this management. If you’ve been hands off for a while, your understory (shrubs, grasses, vines, small trees) may have made it near impossible to get any machinery or man through your pine stand (aka you’re at the “jungle” status). This may also be especially problematic for the herbicide aspect, depending on the type of chemical you use, even if you use a plane to spray it, it may need to lay on the leaves OR to be absorbed within the soil to be truly effective… and depending on how much growth you have, it will not get everything effectively because it won’t be able to access the ground or because of the vertical aspect of the greenery it won’t catch all the plants leaves enough to kill them. Now I’m typically a strong advocate for herbicide spraying, but only when it will be truly effective AND cost effective.
So that leaves prescribe burning as the next feasible option.
I know many folks are intimidated by the idea of using fire within their woods. But listen, it’s truly a fantastic tool. Not only is it generally a lot cheaper than other alternatives, it is also NATURAL. Fire has been utilized within forests for generations- by man AND nature. There are different techniques you can and probably should use to burn your woods, depending on what type of outcome you want- but that’s a different article for another day. Today… today I am going to just explain WHY you should highly consider using prescribe fire and using it often. 
Depending on what type of pine forest you have, or what you have planted, will depend on when you are able to use prescribe fire. Longleaf for instance SHOULD be burned every 2 to 4 years starting when you plant it. If you're not burning it, the longleaf is not going to thrive to its fullest potential. Loblolly and Slash however should not be burned until after the first thinning is completed. This is because loblolly and slash do not have as thick of a bark until it’s older in age and if you burn just prior to the thinning the canopy is too dense and will hold in too much heat which will scorch and negatively impact the needles and thus cause more mortality.
Now I mentioned fire has been used for years and years and years…. Specifically by nature.
And nature is one of my significant points on why you should use prescribe fire. Storms happen, and often WITH storms comes lightning. . . lightning which will strike one of your trees and start a wild fire.
If you’ve been utilizing a prescribe fire regime, when that lightning incident DOES occur, that wild fire will not be AS detrimental to your property. Why is this? Like how the vaccines you took when you were younger had prepared your body for the time it might encounter certain illnesses, your active prescribe fire had prepared your woods for a BIGGER fire incident that might come. The prescribe fire you managed had kept your understory under control and in a healthier state so there was not AS MUCH fuel to be consumed by that lightning wild fire, so it does not spread as quickly OR as intensely before putting itself out or being plowed out by your local wildland firefighters.
(*There are obviously some wild fire incidents that no one can prepare for because of the drought or dry conditions of your environment and the intensity of the fire.*)

So the idea is that prescribe burning is a preventative method you can and should utilize to prepare for the future incidents IF they occur on your property.

Other why’s prescribe burning is a good tool. . .
  • It restores understory (shrubs, grasses, flowers and such) by promoting new greenery close to the ground where wildlife can easily access it. FYI if you didn't know, MOST wildlife prefer the newest growth and greenery... so having the understory low to the ground will benefit MOST wildlife species.
  • It’s more cost effective (usually) than other practices, especially for larger acreages.
  • You can effect more acreages at a time more quickly (compared to mechanical treatments).
  • You can immediately see the results of your work.
  • And let’s just be honest… it’s more fun to partake in over other options…

Everyone wants to live a strong and healthy life. Everyone wants their forest to be healthy. And like taking care of our own body, we must make wise decisions in our management of our forest lands to keep them in as healthy of a state as possible to provide us max returns while resisting forest health pests and diseases and providing excellent habitat for wildlife.
My first prescribe burn ever! (2014)

So the next time you are looking at your woods and thinking “what should I do next”, don’t be intimidated by the
idea of using fire. Reach out to your local forester and ask them their opinion of prescribe burning your property!

*Note: Not all properties are suitable to be prescribe burn due to various reasons: proximity to sensitive areas like airports, major highways/interstates, nursing homes and schools. In these locations alternative methods should be utilized to maintain healthy pine stands. Your local resources will be able to better guide you with your current situation for your property.*


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