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Prescribed burn associations ignite the future

North Carolina a hotspot for restoring Southeastern landscape

Rhonda Wise
Southern Region, Office of Communication
March 27, 2024

Prescribed fire, sometimes referred to as controlled burning, is deeply rooted in the South. Historically and culturally, fire has been used to maintain healthy wildlife habitat for hunting, improve grazing land for livestock and maintain healthy oak and pine forests.

“There are a lot of landowners that are interested in using controlled burns as a management tool on their land,” said Jesse Wimberley, founder of the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association and fourth generation landowner. “But they don’t, because they feel like they lack the experience, equipment and the people to get it done safely.”

Burn crew, with tools in hand, standing in a forested area along the front edge of a low-burning fire.
The Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association hosts a Learn and Burn event for the Conservation Corps North Carolina members to teach prescribed fire techniques in Raeford, North Carolina. (Courtesy photo by Angela Gaskell)

To help private landowners understand the use and benefits of prescribed fire, Wimberley and people like him, have created prescribed burn associations, which are community-led organizations that work to educate and support anyone interested in the use of prescribed fire as a management tool on privately owned land.

Wimberley’s goal was to help landowners overcome obstacles to using prescribed fire, which is the focus of the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association, the first established in North Carolina   . He sought to create a space where anyone was welcome to lend a hand, learning at their own pace while feeling a sense of community.

Wimberley said the atmosphere reminds him of barn-raising events of years past when neighbors worked together to accomplish a common goal. At the core, it’s neighbors helping neighbors.

Woman holding a drip torch, ignites ground vegetation during a prescribed fire event.
A private landowner participates in a Learn and Burn event to better understand prescribed fire techniques. The educational opportunity is sponsored by the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association in Mt. Gilead, North Carolina. (Courtesy photo by Angela Gaskell)

Prescribed burn associations are spreading across the United States, with North Carolina standing out as a hotspot in the Southeast. North Carolina currently has seven prescribed burn associations and one cultural burn association that burn 5,000 acres of private lands annually, on average.

Today, North Carolina has more than 18 million acres of forest lands, with approximately 65% privately owned, further solidifying the importance of applying prescribed fire across ownership boundaries to create healthy resilient forests.

In 2020, the USDA Forest Service’s Southern Region formally partnered with the North Carolina Forest Service to increase prescribed fire capacity through education and hands-on learning. With funding through the Landscape Scale Restoration program, the Forest Service invested more than $400,000 to work collaboratively to address the large-scale fire challenges across the state.

Burn crew gathered around burn trailer and fire equipment during pre-burn brief.
The Southern Blue Ridge Prescribed Burn Association and ForestHer NC members gather for a pre-fire brief to prepare for a day in the field in Yancey County, North Carolina. (Courtesy photo by Jonathan Hartsell)

The funding contributed significantly to the expansion of local prescribed burn associations across the state. The North Carolina Forest Service used the funding to purchase four burn trailers for prescribed burn associations to borrow. The trailers provide them with the tools needed to conduct a burn effectively and safely.

“North Carolina is now seeing the fruits of increased collaboration in regard to land management,” said Wesley Sketo, wildfire mitigation forester at the North Carolina Forest Service and North Carolina Prescribed Fire Council president. “The accomplishments we have made with our state, federal and non-governmental partners to support and establish PBAs – we’ve come together and are all pushing in the same direction.”

North Carolina is ranked No. 1 in the nation for having the largest number of acres considered wildland-urban interface, that vulnerable transition area where homes and wildland meet. In 2022, the Forest Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service joined together under the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership to invest in healthy forests for North Carolina, including partnering with prescribed burn associations.

Four men stand near small pine tree in deep discussion, with low-burning fire in the background.
Members of the Sandhills Prescribed Burn Association taking a moment to exchange knowledge during a prescribed fire in longleaf pine habitat, in Broadway, North Carolina. (Courtesy photo by Angela Gaskell)

“Fire management doesn’t happen only on national forest lands, and it doesn’t stop where we’ve drawn a boundary on a map,” said Greg Philipp, forest assistant fire management officer at the National Forests in North Carolina. “We have to work together with the state agencies, private landowners and other partners to make an impact on public and private lands.”

As prescribed burn associations continue to spread nationally, no two associations are the same.

“The organizational structures are as different as the land they cover,” said Jennifer Fawcett, extension associate for wildland fire with the North Carolina State Extension. “The common factor though, is that they promote and support community-led prescribed burning in a safe and fun way - neighbors helping neighbors burn, across ownership boundaries - coming together to share resources, and knowledge.

More than 130 associations exist throughout 22 states, according to North Carolina State University researchers. To locate a prescribed burn association near you, visit this interactive map, developed by the Great Plains Fire Science Exchange.