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Reducing Wildfire Risk and Improving Wildlife Habitat

Mary O’Malley
Daniel Boone National Forest
April 6, 2022

Editor’s note: The Forest Service’s Southern Region uses prescribed fire to annually treat about 1.2 million acres on national forests and grasslands from Texas east to Virginia and south to Florida. Prescribed fire, or intentionally burning vegetation, reduces wildlife risks, improves timber stands, restores and enhances native plant and wildlife species, and protects water quality for thousands of communities across the nation. 

With mild spring conditions filling the forecast, the Daniel Boone National Forest initiated a series of prescribed burns in late-February. These burns have reduced the risk of wildfires and increase wildlife habitat diversity across the Forest.

“Prescribed fire is one of the most valuable fire management tools for the Daniel Boone National Forest and our partners,” said the National Forest’s Acting Fire Management Officer Jeff Bostwick. “We use it to alter, maintain, or restore vegetative communities; achieve desired resource conditions; and to protect life, property, and values that would be degraded or destroyed by wildfire.”

Prescribed burning removes accumulated smaller fuels and recycles nutrients in the soils to promote healthy vegetation and wildlife habitat. After a prescribed burn, charred material returns nutrients to the soil and creates space for new growth to emerge in as little as a few days or weeks. Key native plant species like white oak and even many common native species like wildflowers, depend on fire to clear competing species from the area and to enrich the soil.

“Aside from the habitat and species-specific benefits, you also have the general benefit of removing leaf litter, woody debris, and other potential fuels from the ground,” said Daniel Boone National Forest Supervisor H. Scott Ray. “As counterintuitive as it may seem, prescribed burning is one of the best ways to prevent a wildfire. By waiting for the right conditions and carefully controlling the burn itself we can mimic historic fire disturbances and reduce underbrush and flammable vegetation, which is key to limiting wildfire growth.”

Fire Management Officer, monitors aerial ignition while sitting at a desk watching a large display
Demarron “Leif” Meadows, Zone Assistant Fire Management Officer, monitors aerial ignition of the Walker North prescribed burn from UAS mission control. (Forest Service photo by Mary O’Malley)

All prescribed burns are thoroughly planned and analyzed by a team of specialists to ensure that wildlife, fisheries, rare plants, and historic sites are not harmed. Experienced fire managers will closely monitor local weather conditions, such as wind and humidity, and adjust the schedule as needed to ensure the safety of both crewmembers and local residents. Prior to lighting the burn, crews construct and designate firebreaks to ensure the fire does not leave the burn area.

“We have very strict requirements for prescribed burns,” said Bostwick. “We wait for the perfect combination of low wind and higher humidity to make sure that we can burn safely. Our fire management team is committed to safe prescribed burns that put the right amount of fire in the right places at the right time.

During prescribed burns, additional firefighting personnel and equipment will be on site and some roads and trails may be closed for public safety. The Forest works closely with partners, like the Kentucky Division of Forestry and The Nature Conservancy, to ensure that all prescribed burns are conducted with appropriate oversight and direction from skilled fire practitioners.    

During the next couple months of fire season, the Forest encourages members of the general public to follow the Kentucky Division of Forestry’s outdoor burning law prohibiting burning brush between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. when within 150 feet of any woodland or brush. 

Confronting the Wildfire Crisis

The Forest Service has launched a robust, 10-year strategy to squarely address this wildfire crisis in the places where it poses the most immediate threats to communities. The strategy, called “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests,” combines a historic investment of congressional funding with years of scientific research and planning into a national effort that will dramatically increase the scale of forest health treatments over the next decade.

The Forest Service will work with partners to focus fuels and forest health treatments more strategically and at the scale of the problem, using the best available science as a guide. The plan calls for the agency to treat up to an additional 20 million acres on National Forest System lands, and up to an additional 30 million acres of other Federal, State, Tribal, and private lands.