Just what the forest doctors ordered: Prescribed burn fosters safe growth of Southern woodlands
by Laura Camper
May 17, 2013 | 6357 views |  0 comments | 38 38 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Joe Smith, 'burn boss' for the U.S. Forest Service, burns woods in the Talladega National Forest near Lineville during a controlled burn. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Joe Smith, 'burn boss' for the U.S. Forest Service, burns woods in the Talladega National Forest near Lineville during a controlled burn. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
TALLADEGA NATIONAL FOREST — On Ivory Mountain Wednesday morning, about a dozen workers gathered around a truck to plan their day’s mission — clearing 800 acres in a prescribed burn.

The firefighters work for the U.S. Forest Service in several different national forests in Alabama. One is from the Nature Conservancy. They came from Montgomery, Tuskegee and Conecuh to work here with local firefighters.

“We all pitch in because we’re all in it together,” said Matt Greene, fire restoration planner for the Nature Conservancy.

All of them have had the same training so they can easily fit into the group they’re working with that day, Greene said.

Why burn?

Both sides of the narrow dirt road have dense underbrush, pointed out Scott Layfield, fire management officer for the Talladega and Shoal Creek districts of Talladega National Forest. Oaks, sweet gums and loblolly pines have sprouted among the ferns, vines and grasses that cover the forest floor. High above them the longleaf pines, the trees native to this site, sway in the westerly breeze. Those are the trees the U.S. Forest Service is trying to restore, Layfield said.

There should be an unbroken view into the forest, Layfield said. But the undergrowth has become too dense, thereby limiting the diversity of the plants and animals that live there.

“The rain forests cannot survive without rain; these forests cannot survive without fire,” Greene said. “It allows these forests to maintain their healthiness.”

It also reduces the amount of flammable material on the forest floor, which protects the people that live in this area. If a wildfire starts, it’s limited in how quickly and how far it can spread. It’s also good for the animals in the forest, Greene added.

As an area burns, the burned material adds nutrients to the soil while at the same time allowing sunlight to reach the area. If rain falls soon after a burn, new foliage can start sprouting within days, Greene said.

“That fresh forage is very attractive to deer and turkey and squirrels and the other animals that are in the woodlands,” he said.

Scheduling a burn

The service tries to maintain a three-year burn cycle. To maintain the entire forest would require burning about 70,000 acres a year, Layfield said. For the last several years it has burned between 35,000 and 40,000 acres a year, he said.

The service doesn’t have the manpower, money or the time to do more local burning in a year, so the service picks certain areas to focus on. This area on the ridge of the Ivory Mountain is one such area. It's 800 acres in southwestern Cleburne County, near the border with Clay County, that hasn’t been burned for four years.

Wednesday’s burn is part of a plan that was created about a year ago, Layfield said. Once the service decides which areas will be burned in a given year, it waits for good weather to start scheduling. The morning of the burn, the burn boss, in this case Joe Smith, zone assistant fire management officer, starts to monitor things like air quality and weather reports along with wind direction and speed to decide when it can burn each of the areas, Smith said.

The service has its own weather stations and it sends its information to the National Weather Service, which will use the information to create a spot forecast, Smith said. The spot forecast can help predict where the smoke from the planned fire will blow. Smith checks the air quality to make sure the smoke won’t add to an already bad air quality index. Wednesday, the air quality index was moderate, he said.

The service also checks the moisture in the first 6 to 8 inches of soil, Layfield said. Burning can’t be done once the topsoil starts to dry out. Once that happens, the burn, which just skims the top of the soil when it’s still moist, can heat up and burn the top soil causing root damage to the trees, Layfield said.

Once a burn is scheduled, Smith said he has to communicate with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the media to let people know about the burn.

“The first two hours of a burn boss’ day is really busy,” he said.

The burn

Out at the site, Smith divides the acreage among groups of workers. They set off in the directions of their assigned territory and use torches with a diesel-gasoline fuel mixture to start the fires. They start the fire at the edge of the territory so that it will spread into the wind. That keeps the fire from spreading too fast or burning too hot, Greene said. They also have tractors and an all-terrain vehicle to aid them.

Using a torch to ignite vegetation, Greene’s partner walks along the road that will act as a fire break.

The flames, about a foot and a half high, spread into the undergrowth. The fire burns the leaves, the small trees and sticks. But the branches of the longleaf pines are near the tops of the trees, well away from the flames. The flames lick the base of the tree trunks and then move on quickly. The bark on the trunks is so thick, the trees are unharmed, Greene said.

Even seedlings will survive if the green core is unharmed, Layfield said, pointing to a still-green seedling that has been protected from the fire by a mane of long needles, now brown from the heat.

That is what this is all about, Layfield said. The service is trying to preserve and restore the landscape to its historic state, he said.

Layfield said the service wants the forest around Ivory Mountain to have the same patterns of vegetation as the forest found around Coleman Lake: more open and dominated by the longleaf pines with grasses, weeds and legumes on the forest floor. In his 10 years here, he has seen improvement.

“I’m starting to see the understory’s not as tall,” Layfield said, using the term that refers to smaller trees and saplings growing beneath large trees. “We’ve got spots now where we’re using timber sales, fire, a combination of treatments. We’re getting where you can look through there for 200 yards.”

Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-463-2872. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.
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