Natural resource managers have a host of tools at their disposal for use on the land. One of the most powerful and controversial methods is the use of fire in a controlled or prescribed burn. Prescribed burns are fires that are ignited under controlled conditions by well-equipped professionals that have extensive training. In Maryland, a controlled burn plan must be prepared in anticipation of the burn and it must be approved by the Regional and State Fire Managers of the Maryland Forest Service. Once approved, a special permit is issued to the contractor or agency that is doing the burn. The weathers must be closely monitored, and the process begins only when conditions are optimal for a safe and responsible burn.
Prescribed burning is used for many reasons; one of which is to reinvigorate special “fire dependent” habitats or to promote species that require periodic burning to regenerate. An example of such a habitat is the serpentine barrens found in Northern Baltimore County at Soldiers Delight Environmental Management Area. There are 39 species of rare plants located at Soldiers Delight that are dependent on periodic burns to maintain these barrens in an open condition. In the absence of burning, trees such as Virginia pine and eastern red cedar will encroach in these areas and outcompete the rare plants. In Frederick County, a number of Warm Season Grass meadows have become established for wildlife habitat. These meadows are dependent on periodic burning to rejuvenate the prairie grasses and rid the fields of encroaching woody vegetation. On the Frederick City Watershed, prescribed burns have been employed in the Pine Swamp area. Years ago, this unique ecological area consisted mainly of pitch and shortleaf pines. Over the years, these conifers have died out, and they are being replaced by hardwoods such as red maple, black birch, and black gum. The use of controlled fires in this area will reduce the hardwood competition and promote pine regeneration, since the extreme heat will promote the opening of the pitch and shortleaf pine cones and the dissemination of pine seeds.
A recent 50 acre controlled burn was carried out in a section of the pine swamp on November 6, 2019. In 2017, a 14 acre prescribed fire occurred in another section of the swamp. Preliminary results yielded from the 2017 fire are numerous six to twelve inch young pine seedlings that have sprouted in the burned area. Using prescribed fire as a management tool should help evergreens reclaim a dominant position in the future canopy.
Controlled burns can also be used to reduce fire danger by reducing the fuel load of forests, marsh, and fields, rather than have a large uncontrolled forest fire sweep through it. In the Deep South, understory burns are often carried out in pine plantations to reduce accumulation of woody debris or volatile plants like saw palmetto. Reducing these “fuels” in a controlled manner helps prevent high intensity “crown” fires from destroying the plantation. These understory burns also help control some insects and disease, such as the use of controlled burns in young longleaf pine plantations for the control of brown spot disease. Prescribed fires are also used to reduce fuel accumulation in the western states around housing developments or other inhabited areas. Doing this will make these areas less susceptible to high intensity forest fires. In coastal areas, sometimes marshes are burned in a controlled manner to reduce fuels, suppress invasive plants such as phragmites and reed canary grass, or promote rare plant communities.
Native Americans used fire extensively to maintain travel lanes, grasslands, and to help cultivate crops. Fire has been used for thousands of years as a management tool. As more urban encroachment occurs, the use of fire has diminished. In the future, other methods for maintaining these fragile communities need to be developed, or society will need to come to terms with the use of prescribed fire as a management tool.
Article by FCFCDB Member
Photos credits Maryland DNR
Nature Note for 7/4/20