Benefits of Prescribed Burning

red_fuelPrescribed burning removes accumulated fuels and therefore the risk of intense wildfires.

log_debThis material is an impediment to both people and planting equipment and serves as potential wildfire fuel.

pre_seedPrescribed burning can create a more favorable seedbed when regenerating trees/plants by direct seeding, planting, or natural regeneration.

pre_habPrescribed burning reintroduces a natural process that stimulates food and cover amount other benefits to which most of Arkansas’s wildlife are adapted.

com_vegOften unwanted plant species managed with herbicide and/or mechanical treatmens can be more effective when fire is part of the prescription.

ins_disResearchers are only just beginning to understand how fire and smoke can help control certain plan and animal insects and diseases in a natural ecosystem.

Brief History of Fire in Arkansas

Accounts from early explorers and detailed data from Government Land Office surveys typically describe much of Arkansas – before extensive European settlement – as grassy open woodlands with abundant wildflowers and numerous prairies and barrens. Today, most of Arkansas looks quite different. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the state’s forests were heavily cut. Faced with a stripped landscape, people realized what had been lost and took measures that seemed logical at the time; the forests were allowed to grow and fires were largely suppressed.

Ozark WoodlandScientific studies of tree rings taken from sites throughout Arkansas reveal that fire historically swept through the region at least every five to eight years. For the past 50-90 years, most of the state’s forests have grown without natural understory fires, causing tree density to increase substantially. With more trees competing for nutrients and water, forests can become weak and vulnerable to drought, disease and pests like the red oak borer, a native insect that has eaten its way through 1.6 million acres of Arkansas’ oaks in recent years. Pines and most oaks are largely adapted to fire, and without it, shade-tolerant trees increase under the forest canopy, exerting extreme pressure on the plants and animals specifically adapted to the region’s pine & oak forests. Plant species that require sunlight and provide food sources – like oaks, grasses and wildflowers – can’t reproduce. These crowded conditions also increase the risk of intense, uncontrollable wildfires, and can increase the destruction caused by other natural disturbances such as ice and tornadoes.

In the prairies, widespread fire suppression over several decades has allowed woody plants to grow up and shade out wildflowers and grasses that require sunlight. As native plants disappear and incompatible land practices increase, wildlife habitat decreases and soil erosion and invasive plant species become increasingly problematic.

Within the last 10-15 years, carefully managed prescribed fires have been re-introduced in select areas by state, federal, and non-government entities in an effort to maintain/restore Arkansas’s plant and animal health and diversity. Now rare, an importance has been placed on pockets of forest and grassland ecosystem that resemble conditions more common in the 19th century. Within even more recent years these efforts have been extended to include privately owned lands in Arkansas. Information on opportunities to improve the health and diversity of forest and grasslands using fire on your property exist in the Planning a Burn area of this site.

Hazardous Fuel Reduction

This is one of the most common reasons for wanting to conduct a prescribed burn. If a burn is successful at meeting any of your objectives, this will usually be included. This is no more than reduction of the amount of fuel on the ground that will burn. This may include grass thatch, leaves, limbs, even logging debris and piles. The primary reason you burn for hazard reduction is to reduce the chance that a destructive wildfire can occur. Often, this type of burn is the only objective when an area hasn’t been burned in decades. Once a hazard reduction burn has occurred, many other objectives can be sought in subsequent burns.

Burned vs. Unburned GrassPlanting and Regeneration

Prescribed burning is often conducted to prepare the seedbed for mechanical, hand-planting, or natural regeneration of seedlings. By piling and burning the previous forest remains, the seedbed is open for easier access and more effective planting success. This is a common and cost-effective technique used by industrial forest product industries called “site prep burning.” Another turn on this same idea applies within forests and grasslands. Burning can remove excessive plant material, reduce competition and provide more opportunities for seed to soil contact. In addition, the fire provides a healthy dose of potash and creates a heat-absorbing black soil to further stimulate germination. This is an especially important process for naturally regenerating fire-adapted species within an existing forest such as oak, and also for native, warm-season grasses and forbs in open areas. However, there is such a thing as too hot, as overly dry or excessively heavy fuel can sterilize a soil bed in extreme situations.

Vegetation Control

Not all plant species respond to the same prescribed fire equally. Many of Arkansas’s native forest and grassland species respond positively to frequent, low to moderate-intensity fires. However, due to long-standing restraint on fire management, many native, fire-intolerant species have accumulated outside their historic range where fire has been absent. Prescribed fire can be used in most situations, over time, to reduce or remove these species, if desired. In addition, many non-native species that have become problematic by out-competing native plants for resources can likewise be managed with fire over time, especially in combination with other effective treatments like herbicide.

Insect and Disease Control

The direct impact of prescribed fire on many insect or disease infestations is not completely understood, but in many cases, destructive outbreaks occur when forest or grassland conditions have become unhealthy and succumb to normal fluctuations in insect and disease populations. The exception to this is when a non-native competitor such as the emerald ash borer or the chestnut blight is introduced. But, prescribed fire can help maintain forest and grassland vigor through reduction of dead leaf and grass layers, keeping forest density at lower levels, and encouraging a healthy influx of new growth, among other possible impacts. There is also some evidence that smoke may play a role in helping some plants defend themselves from certain insect or disease infestations.

Wildlife Habitat Improvement

Roughly 84 percent of Arkansas’ native wildlife is adapted to open or semi-open habitats that were historically maintained by a regular fire. Without fire, many of these species become less competitive or are driven out to find more suitable environments. Many researchers say the absence of regular fire is largely responsible for the decline in Arkansas’s quail population. Frequent fire stimulates those plants that provide the best food sources for Arkansas’ native animals, including the state’s most popular game species. In addition to food sources, fire can create that patchy diversity that provides nesting, hiding, mating and other types of habitat that encourage successful reproduction. Much of the current efforts to increase potential habitat for some of Arkansas’s rarest species include the reestablishment of regular fire. Some articles on fire impacts on wildlife can be seen on the Articles & Training Info page.