The mere mention of a forest or brush fire conjures up images of wide-scale destruction. In the most extreme cases, fire can be destructive — even deadly. Not all fire is bad, though. In fact, a growing number of landowners and deer managers are embracing prescribed burns as an effective way to improve habitat for whitetails and other wildlife.
The Return Of Fire
Once a common management tool, fire was often used by Native Americans to control unwanted vegetation and to regenerate aging wildlife habitat. They knew hundreds of years ago that fire was good for wildlife.
Burning fell out of favor some time in the late 20th century partly as a result of safety issues. Thanks to a new interest in habitat management for a variety of species and a new understanding of fire safety, burning has seen a tremendous resurgence among professional wildlife managers and private landowners alike. Fire is back.
The Benefits of Fire
Fire is a natural part of the landscape and an important ingredient in the health of many ecosystems. Even better, it’s an affordable, highly-effective management tool that benefits a wide variety of wildlife. Done properly, it’s a great way to complement food plots and other management activities.
“It sets back the ecological succession and helps maintain the habitat in early succession,” says South Carolina Department of Natural Resources deer project leader Dr. Charles Ruth. “Early successional habitat is great for a variety of game and non-game species, including deer. It makes great cover for nesting turkeys and quail and it’s full of food for deer and other wildlife.”
Fire is also a great tool for clearing out thick, dead growth in fallow fields and forests. Cool-season grasses like fescue and Bermuda grass in particular can overtake a field, choking out the beneficial plants that deer and other wildlife eat.
Even better, the ash left behind helps fortify the soil, which helps grow stronger, healthier new plant life. Depending on the season and the soil temperature, it only takes one good rain to regenerate a wide variety of new growth. A few weeks later, the burned area will be filled with fresh green growth. Those young tender plants are exactly what deer prefer. Whitetails won’t eat every type of plant that springs up form the ashes, but they will flock to burned areas soon after the area starts to regrow.
In most cases, the best time to burn is in the late winter or early spring. During this time, new plant growth hasn’t sprouted yet and existing plant growth is dormant or dead. The idea is to burn off the dense cover that has become too thick for quail and turkeys. In many instances, that thick growth chokes out good plants and prevents new growth from regenerating.
Land managers who want to restore fallow fields to native habitat should first spray the cool-season grasses with a non-selective herbicide like glyphosate a few weeks or even a few months before they burn. Many biologists suggest spraying in the late fall when most “good” plants have gone dormant for the season, but when cool-season grasses are still green. It might take several weeks before the herbicide shows any effect, but once it’s dead, it’s ready to burn.
Ruth says warm-season burns can be a great tool, too. They can control unwanted plant growth like sweetgum trees and others that survive through a cool-season burn. Fires tend to burn hotter in the summer, and the scorching heat burns the leaves of shorter saplings, which ultimately kills them.
“Warm-season burns are a great last resort method when invasives have really taken over,” says Ruth. “You can use herbicides, but that will kill all the good plants down to the roots. Fire might burn up the leaves or the stalks of everything it touches, but many plants will re-grow from the roots.”
Sometimes, it’s only a matter of weeks before new, green growth springs up from the ashes. Cool-season fires in particular can take a little longer, but as soon as warm weather returns, so will the plants.
Instead of burning large areas at once, consider breaking fields and forests into smaller sections. Management consultant Aaron Bumgarner, who owns Virginia-based Tidewater Forestry and Wildlife, used to burn areas up to 100 acres at a time, but that’s time consuming. More importantly, it’s not necessarily the best management tool.
“By sectioning larger tracts into smaller blocks, you can rotate your burns from year-to-year,” he says. “I like to do a three- to four-year rotation. I’ll burn one block one year, another block a year later, and so on. That provides different stages of habitat, which means you’ll have more diversity.”
Dropping a match on your forest floor or overgrown fields sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? It is. Fire isn’t something to be taken lightly. Burn on the wrong day or burn when you are ill-prepared and things can get out of hand quickly.
First, cut fire breaks. A swath of bare ground around the area you plan to burn will prevent flames from getting into areas they aren’t supposed to. In most cases, a few passes with a disk can bury any potential fuel and stop a fire from spreading. Established roads can also serve as fire breaks. So can strips of short, green grass.
“As a general rule, fire breaks should be two to three times wider than the tallest flames,” says certified prescribed burn manager Aaron Bumgarner. “So if your flames are 3 feet high, your fire break should be 9 feet wide. I actually make my fire breaks into food plots after I’ve burned. It’s a great way to give your deer and other wildlife even more food choices.”
Other barriers like ponds, rivers and even previously burned areas also prevent fire from spreading. No matter what type of break you use, just make sure it is completely void of fuel. In fact, Bumgarner says nothing is more important than having adequate fire breaks.
But fire can jump under certain situations. High winds, particularly on low-humidity days, can carry embers well across a break and into areas you don’t want to burn. That’s why it’s critical to pay close attention to the weather.
“A little wind actually helps,” says Bumgarner. “It can get the fire to burn better and it can help disperse the smoke, which is a big part of the safety issue. In fact, smoke is a bigger liability issue than the fire.”
It’s not that smoke is particularly dangerous, but it can be to some people. That is why it’s vital to burn when smoke rises or blows away from occupied dwellings or other developed areas.
That’s one more reason Bumgarner likes to section off land into smaller blocks when he burns. Shifting winds or other changes can force him to shut down a burn. Although it’s nearly impossible to stop a burn in progress, the flames will stop when they reach a fire break.
To be safe, though, always have water handy just in case flames creep across a break or an ash blows with the wind. An ATV or tractor-mounted sprayer filled with water is usually adequate, but even a few guys with shovels can tamp down unwanted flames before they get out of hand.
Fire can be dangerous if left unchecked, but when a prescribed burn is conducted properly, it can create some of the best wildlife habitat you’ve ever seen.