Managed fires

Reviving forests, one burn at a time

Flame front on the managed Pipeline Fire in the Ouachita National Forest in 2013. USDA Forest Service photo by Virginia McDaniel.

Fire is a natural ecosystem process. Many land managers in the southeastern U.S. understand that prescribed burning as an essential tool for restoring and maintaining biodiversity in fire-adapted forests and grasslands. The role of wildfire, however, is less widely accepted as a means to maintain healthy, resilient ecosystems.

The term wildfire implies a fire that is out of control. Given the hot and dry conditions when many wildfires ignite, this can be true. Many wildfires, however, burn with low to moderate intensity and provide more benefit than harm to forests and grasslands.

In fact, many forests in the southeastern U.S. evolved with frequent, low intensity burns. These recurring fires prevented woody vegetation from becoming established and thus encouraged a rich understory plant community.

Managed fire is a term used for fires that have been ignited naturally, usually by lightning, in remote areas that don’t pose a risk to life and property. They often coincide with drought or heat events and start during times of year when fires historically burned. Climate change and increased fuel loading have changed the conditions effecting burn severity and intensity of wildfires, but wildfire’s restoration potential is not well understood.

During the summer of 2011, the southeastern U.S. experienced an extreme drought. The Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas had 66 lightning ignitions, more than in any year in recorded history.

Most ignitions were fully suppressed, but two starts occurred in remote, rugged areas that made suppression difficult: the Statehouse and High Peak Fires. The Incident Commander (IC) designated a planning area where the fires could burn plus a series of trigger points that would require management action.

The Statehouse Fire burned 388 acres of the 8,210-acre planning area and went out on its own after 15 days. The High Peak Fire burned 1,500 acres of the 1,801-acre planning area and was extinguished by a rain event after 12 days. The Southern Research Station collaborated with The Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, Ouachita National Forest, the Southern Region, and the National Park Service to study the effects of this fire on overstory tree mortality. The fire top-killed two-thirds of the midstory but had minimal effect on overstory trees, the researchers found.

The managed Rough Branch Fire on the Ouachita National Forest used a lake as a boundary in 2013. USDA Forest Service photo by Virginia McDaniel.

The Ouachita National Forest has managed three more wildfires since the success of the 2011 managed fires: Raspberry Mountain in 2012, and Rough Branch and Pipeline in 2013. All these managed fires burned with low to moderate intensity.

Postburn assessments showed effects similar to a planned prescribed fire: a reduction in fuel loads, thinning of the midstory, and improvement in wildlife habitat.

The Ouachita National Forest treats more than 100,000 acres with prescribed fire every year. Lightning ignitions occasionally start within these burn units. Because control lines are in place, ICs often choose to burn out the entire unit rather than create new control lines to suppress a wildfire.

Managing a wildfire like this provides for the safety of firefighters, prevents unnecessary damage to the land (additional dozerlines, for example), and allows fire to play its natural role on the landscape. In the fall of 2021, the Fodderstack Mountain Wildfire started within a prescribed burn unit in a remote area of the Ouachita National Forest.

“Because we had control lines in place, we were able to bring in a helicopter to burn it out in a day,” says Fire Management Officer Justus Beggs. “Ninety-five percent of the fire burned with low severity and will provide a nice seedbed for a variety of native plants.”

Managed fire comes with ecological, economic, and personal risks. Often these risks make fire suppression the safest option in the short-term. But, over the long-term, fire suppression has resulted in catastrophic wildfires and loss of biodiversity. It makes sense to re-evaluate these management decisions and think about the long-term effects.

“The first step towards increasing the use of managed fire is teaching incoming Incident Commanders that managed fire is a tool in their toolbox; that they don’t have to put in a line directly next to the flames,” says former Ouachita National Forest District FMO Becky Finzer. “Controlling a fire indirectly by using a natural or person-made barriers, like a creek or road, is a viable option that causes less resource damage and should be considered.”

Forests and grasslands across the country can benefit from managed fires. They are able to reduce the risk to wildland firefighters and restore plant diversity, which in turn benefits many wildlife species. Managed fires also have the potential to lower the risk of catastrophic fire by reducing hazardous fuel loads.

Read an article about a managed fire in Natural Areas Journal.

For more information, email Virginia McDaniel at virginia.l.mcdaniel@usda.gov.

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