Fire has been used as a management strategy for thousands of years throughout the country, resulting in benefits to the land and wildlife that uses it whether that be songbirds and insects or big game species such as white-tailed deer.
In the Southeast, fire was used to eradicate the understory in vast longleaf pine forests that once covered the region as well as hardwood areas. Between fire and careful thinning, these forests yielded ample food and habitat for wildlife and humans. On the Great Plains, Native Americans used fire to restore lush grasslands that provided food for the great herds of buffalo and other big game animals including deer, elk and pronghorn.
The following information is provided by the south Carolina Department of Natural Resources, but has practical information worth considering no matter where you live.
The use of prescribed fire as a land management tool has deep and ancient roots in South Carolina’s heritage. However, conducting prescribed burns is becoming increasingly challenging due to a variety of factors, according to a state wildlife biologist and forester.
Johnny Stowe, S.C. Department of Natural Resources representative to the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council and a certified wildlife biologist and forester, said properly conducted prescribed burns (also called “controlled burns”) have multiple benefits. Stowe is also a landowner who burns his own land.
Prescribed fires help restore and maintain vital habitat for wildlife, including bobwhite quail and other grassland birds, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, gopher tortoises, and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Besides the many wildlife species that require fire-dependent habitat, many plants thrive only in regularly burned forests. The demise of the longleaf pine forest and associated grasslands, which once made South Carolina one of the best quail hunting states, is tightly correlated to the decrease of woods-burning.
Also, plants like the insectivorous pitcher plants, sundews, and Venus’ fly trap — as well as many other plant species, some of them rare — require frequent fire.
“Fire-maintained lands also have a special unique beauty,” Stowe said. “The open, park-like vistas of properly burned lands appeal to many of us.”
Prescribed fire enhances public safety, according to Stowe, by reducing or even eliminating fuel loads, thereby making wildfire on that area impossible or unlikely for some time afterwards. Wildfires are usually less destructive on areas that have been prescribed burned. Wildfires often either lose intensity or go out when they reach areas that have been prescribed burned.
Prescribed fire is also, along with hunting and agriculture, an essential part of the heritage and character of the South. Every culture that has ever lived in the South has had an ancient tradition of woods burning. The Indians transformed the Southern landscape for thousands of years with fire, and the Africans and Europeans brought with them from the Old World the time-tested practice of using fire to mold the land to their needs.
Sadly, one of the main threats to prescribed burning is the legacy of Smokey Bear.“Smokey is one of the best-known icons in the United States,” Stowe said, “and while part of Smokey’s message always has been, is, and always will be wise — that no one should carelessly or maliciously use fire under any circumstances — Smokey’s legacy is that several generations of Americans view forest fires as universally destructive.”
Another key threat to the Southern tradition of prescribed burning as a land management tool is South Carolina’s increasingly urban population. Many South Carolinians now come from backgrounds that did not expose them to rural land management activities such as burning, hunting and agricultural operations, according to Stowe. Often these folks do not appreciate the multiple benefits to society that these practices provide, nor the long-standing role that they play in the state’s natural and cultural history. Noted conservationist Aldo Leopold correctly observed that one of the dangers of not living on a farm is that you may get the idea that heat comes from the furnace and food from the supermarket.