For centuries, fire has played an important role in forming the landscape of the country. Whether ignited by a spark of lightning or conducted by Native Americans and early European settlers, this economical land-management tool altered the composition and structure of the vegetation, promoting biological diversity among the region’s woodlands and grasslands.
Unlike a wildfire, which can get out of control and cause damage, a controlled burn, also known as prescribed burning, is fire applied in a skillful manner under exacting weather conditions to achieve specific results.
“Prescribed burning has a specially trained burn boss who creates a burn plan, reviews it with helpers and landowners, arranges equipment, and decides when the weather is optimal for the burn,” says Bob Qualman, landowner and Tennessee Forestry Commission chair. “They also install fire lines around the land using a plow or bulldozer, which removes burnable materials and prevents the fire from escaping the planned burn area.”
Qualman and his wife own 289 acres of forestland in Humphreys County and use prescribed burning to tend to the trees on their property.
“Controlled burning in our pines eliminates unwanted hardwood competition. That allows the pine trees to grow faster and releases nutrients from the burned brush back into the soil to encourage growth spurts in our trees,” says Qualman.
Additionally, prescribed burning removes undesirable brush, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor, regenerating desirable grasses animals need for food and shelter.
“Controlled burning also significantly reduces the chances of future wildfires by ridding the ground of fuel for unwanted fires,” Qualman says.
Brian Hughett is a forester with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry who focuses on stewardship. He agrees that prescribed burning is an invaluable tool for landowners.
“The advantages of prescribed fire are tied to the benefits provided by properly managing forests and grasslands,” Hughett says. “Through active management, landowners experience increased productivity and environmental gains through wildlife habitat enhancement and improved forest health and water quality.”
While controlled burning offers many improvements, it isn’t right for every scenario and can have negative consequences.
“Prescribing, planning and executing prescribed fire can be both intimidating and complex for anyone inexperienced with its use,” Hughett says. “Landowners unfamiliar with prescribed fire management should seek advice from a qualified natural resource professional, such as their local Division of Forestry Area Forester.”