Prescribed Burning FAQs

Why Burn?

A controlled burn is being conducted near me.  What can I expect?

How has fire shaped the central Appalachians?

How is a controlled burn different from a wildfire?

How does controlled burning affect Appalachian plants?

Does controlled burning put animals in danger?

How does smoke from controlled burning impact air quality?

Are soils affected by controlled burns?

What can I expect after the controlled burn?

Why Burn?

Fire is a necessary process for healthy forests in the Appalachians. Naturally occurring fires have been suppressed over the last century, causing changes in forest composition and structure. Controlled burns are the safest way to return fire to the ecosystem.  These burns restore fire-dependent species and improve wildlife habitat by making food, cover, and open spaces available to animals.  Controlled burns return a mosaic of plant types and ages to the forest. By restoring a diverse and healthy forest ecosystem, we ensure the forest is more resistant to severe fire, disease, and insect infestations. Controlled burning ensures the survival of a diversity of forest plants and wildlife.

A controlled burn is being conducted near me.  What can I expect?

During a controlled burn, anyone near the national forest may see and smell smoke. They may also experience reduced visibility in low lying areas and may encounter additional traffic along Forest Service roads. Drivers should use their low beam lights if they encounter smoke on the road.

The burn areas will be closed to the public during a controlled burn.  If it is necessary to temporarily close Forest roads and trails, the Forest Service will post signs in the area to notify the public of closures. 

Prior to lighting the burn, crews construct and designate corridors around the burn area that the fire is not expected to cross.  Contingency plans, additional personnel, and equipment are set in place for any unexpected events.

Remember, the Forest Service only ignites fire when experts are convinced that conditions are right to ensure our goals for community safety and ecological restoration are met. Prescribed burn experts are extensively trained and have years of experience in protecting the surrounding communities, themselves, and the land they are working to restore.

After the burn, the fire team will spend additional time making sure all flames have been extinguished. Immediately after a prescribed burn, the area can look raw and charred- but that’s only temporary, as shoots and saplings will soon green up and rejuvenate the land. 

How has fire shaped the central Appalachians?

Fire has been an essential natural process in Appalachian oak, hickory and pine forests in Virginia and West Virginia for thousands of years.  Over the last century as populations increased, fires began to be seen as destructive.  For the past 80 years state and federal agencies suppressed and prevented wildfires.  Suppression of fire has changed the structure and composition of forests in the Appalachians. Many plant and wildlife species that need forest diversity for food and cover are rapidly declining.  There are now fewer grasses and other open habitat plants. Dense and overgrown hardwood forests prevent sunlight from getting to the forest floor and impede the regeneration of oaks and some species of pines.  In many cases, fire-intolerant species such as maple, tulip poplar, and white pine have replaced oak and pine forests. In the absence of fire, massive insect and forest disease epidemics have proliferated.  By returning historic fire to Virginia and West Virginia forests, managers hope to restore forest health and wildlife habitat diversity. Controlled burning offers the safest option to return fire to the landscape while closely managing and monitoring its effects.

How is a controlled burn different from a wildfire?

Low intensity, controlled burns have different effects from high intensity fires typical of uncontrolled wildfire. Because wildfires are more likely to burn hot, they are also more likely to adversely affect Southern Appalachian forests, killing desirable trees and consuming the organic portion of the soil. A controlled burn is a planned burn. Controlled burning allows the Forest Service to control the location, intensity and effects of fire. We can plan and moderate the amount and dispersal of smoke. Planned fires helps us achieve improved forest health and reduces the threat of large fire events. Controlled fire is used only under appropriate conditions and at appropriate sites. The Forest Service has identified areas where controlled fire can be used as a management tool.

How does controlled burning affect Appalachian plants?

Cone and needles of Table Mountain Pine
The heat of fire melts the resin coating of Table Mountain pine cones, allowing them to open and release their seeds. Table Mountain pines are found only in the Appalachian Mountains.

Many of our Appalachian plants depend on fire. Plants depend on fire to recycle nutrients to growing seedlings, to remove other plants competing for soil, moisture, and sunlight, and in some cases, to open cones and release seeds.  Without fire, many Appalachian plants cannot survive.  

The oak and hickory forest and Virginia pine, pitch pine, Table Mountain pine, and short-leaf pine forests are all fire-dependent communities which cannot thrive without fire in the ecosystem.  These forests provide essential habitat for a variety of wildlife.  In the absence of fire, these forest communities are replaced with maples, tulip poplar, white pine and other shade tolerant trees which limit food supplies and suitable habitat for many animal species.

When fire is reintroduced to a forest, fire-intolerant species are killed, making room for oak and pine trees, and shrubs like blueberries and huckleberries.  Controlled burning returns a mosaic of habitats to the forest which is vital for a diversity of wildlife.

Does controlled burning put animals in danger?

 Animals of the Appalachians depend on fire because it creates the mix of open spaces and forest canopy, diverse food sources, and structures that provide shelter which they need to survive. Fire is a normal part of a healthy ecosystem.

During a controlled burn animals may be temporarily displaced, but most can avoid direct harm from fire.  Deer run; birds and bats fly; and mice, lizards, snakes, and salamanders go underground into burrows or under rocks as a fire approaches. We take precautions to ensure escape routes for animals.

How does smoke from controlled burning impact air quality?

How fire affects air quality depends on weather conditions, the size and severity of the fire, the type of fuels burned, and other factors. While smoke cannot be avoided altogether, we work closely with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to monitor air quality and minimize smoke impacts to local communities. Prescribed burn teams consider smoke management in every step of the burn. When conditions aren’t favorable, fire managers will cancel approved burns to avoid the worst smoke impacts.  Ignition of the fire is timed during the day to allow the majority of smoke time to disperse prior to settling overnight.  Larger areas may be selected to burn to ultimately limit the number of days smoke is in the air. We know that our management affects surrounding communities. We strive to find a balance in addressing smoke impacts while also returning natural fire to the landscape.

Are soils affected by controlled burns?

Fallen trees and limbs left to rot on the forest floor will decay at a very slow rate, steadily releasing nutrients into the soil. Large logs can take more than 100 years to decompose. Faster nutrient recycling occurs during a fire, leaching nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil. The abundant supply of nutrients helps new seedlings, brush, and grasses to grow quickly and become established following a fire. This is nature's way of quick starting a forest. The forest needs both slow recycling, from decomposition, and fast recycling from fires. Unfortunately, in the absence of frequent, low-intensity fire too much fuel in the form of limbs, fallen trees, and dry leaves accumulates on the ground.  This fuel may burn in an intense wildfire where the nutrient recycling benefits are often missing. Intense fires tend to scorch the ground and kill the trees above.

What can I expect after the controlled burn?

Our management does not end when the burn is completed. After the burn, the fire team will spend additional time making sure all flames have been extinguished.  Our wildlife biologists, silviculturists, and fire managers will evaluate if the objectives of the burn were met and if any adjustments or corrections should be made on future burns. Young forests only last 10-20 years after a burn.  After that, they return to their pre-burn state- an older forest, which is less useful to wildlife.  The same area will be burned multiple times to keep the forest young.





https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/gwj/landmanagement/resourcemanagement/?cid=fseprd503840