Managing landscapes with prescribed fire

by: Angela Danovi, Project Coordinator for Beaver LakeSmart

Over the next several weeks you may notice smoke or fire at areas you visit around Beaver Lake, within the Beaver Lake Watershed, or across the state of Arkansas. This time of year fires occurring on public lands are likely part of a prescribed fire management plan. In January, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced planned burns for Horseshoe Bend, War Eagle, Starkey, and Blue Springs recreational areas around Beaver Lake. Planned burns were also announced for the wildlife management area around Greers Ferry Lake and land surrounding Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes. Additionally, national forest managers are currently conducting prescribed burns in areas across the Ouachita and the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests.

Many people do not understand how or why fire is used to manage lands while others react to what they see as a destructive practice against plants and animals. Fire scars found in Arkansas tree rings reveal that fire historically swept through the region at least every five to eight years, prior to the 1930s.  During the 1930s, intensive fire suppression tactics were undertaken.  Now, more than 80 years of fire suppression, we have changed the ecosystem, making it more vulnerable to catastrophic natural disasters and diseases while reducing ecological diversity, niche spaces, and wildlife habitat. Adapting our forest and land management plans to allow for prescribed fire can help to re-establish a healthy ecosystem.

Prescribed fire is generally described as a strategically planned and carefully managed fire application used to accomplish specific conservation or land management objectives.   Prescribed fire objectives include lowering wildfire threats by reducing fuels such as dead trees and limbs, improving wildlife habitat, regenerating plants and trees, controlling vegetation such as non-native or invasive plants,and restoring ecosystems.

Benefits of Prescribed Burning, Fact Sheet, 2017

Each prescribed fire has a scientific plan prepared in advance that describes the objectives of the fire, fuels, planned size, map of the planned burn area, and the precise environmental conditions under which it will burn. Fire managers consider various environmental conditions before beginning a prescribed burn including air temperature, relative humidity, and winds. One tool some fire managers use is the Keetch-Byram Drought Index (KBDI), a drought scale ranging from 0 – 800 specifically designed to assess wildfire risk. The higher the number on the KBDI scale, the greater the threat of wildfires in a specific area.  A high threat of wildfires means prescribed fires should not be started.

During the wildfires in Gatlinburg, TN in November, the KBDI scale was over 600.  This means environmental conditions in Gatlinburg at the time such as low humidity, low soil moisture, low rainfall, and high winds indicated a very high risk of wildfire. The wildfire that burned through Gatlinburg ignited and expanded after two teenagers threw a lit match on the ground.  The resulting wildfire caused catastrophic damage and loss of life.  Currently, Northwest Arkansas is in the lowest range on the KBDI scale, meaning we generally have a low threat for wildfires and favorable conditions for land managers to safely complete prescribed burns. However, a final decision about whether or not to burn an area is always made on the day of the fire, based on specific conditions at the location of the prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire is not limited to public lands and is allowed on private land.  However, prescribed fires should only be done by trained individuals under the right conditions to reduce any chance of a prescribed fire turning into a wildfire.  Remember, the difference between a prescribed fire and a wildfire is control.  Trained professionals have the knowledge and experience to manage a prescribed fire.  Before deciding to use prescribed fire as a management tool, we recommend landowners get a forest management plan, available for free by contacting the Arkansas Forestry Commission.

Once you identify prescribed fire as practice for your land, you will want to seek help in preparing a prescribed fire plan, identifying individuals to assist you on the day you plan to burn, and contacting appropriate agencies.  You will find several links below that provide critical information about doing prescribed fires in Arkansas including a sample plan, agency contacts, and potential personnel who are trained in prescribed fires.  Also, our colleagues at the Beaver Watershed Alliance occasionally conduct workshops on prescribed fire. Regardless of whether you plan to use prescribed fire on your property or you simply want to learn more about the science of fire, you can help promote managing our watershed for healthy forests and healthy land.

Prescribed Fire Resources

Arkansas Prescribed Fire Network – The Arkansas Prescribed Fire Network is a cooperative project of the Arkansas Prescribed Fire Council. The purpose of the Network is to provide accurate information on the use and benefits of prescribed fire in Arkansas, provide a place where people can come to find information, post photos, learn about training and equipment locations, and find help getting their own prescribed fires accomplished safely and effectively.

This is a great resource for specific information for prescribed fire planning and contacts.

GoodFires – and sister website are part of a 13-state effort to strengthen appreciation for our precious natural lands, as well as to promote understanding of and support for the key role played by prescribed fire.

Why We Burn: Prescribed Burning as a Management Tool – Publication FSA-5009 by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service

Fire Prescriptions for Maintenance and Restoration of Native Plant Communities – Publication F-2878 by Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service

Fire: US Drought Portal within the National Integrated Drought Information Systems – Has several resources for tracking drought and fire risk