After a more than a century of fighting to keep fire out of forests, reintroducing it is now an important management goal. Yet changes over the past century have left prescribed burning with a big job to do. Development, wildfire suppression, rising global temperatures, extended droughts, exotic species invasions, and longer fire seasons add complexity to using this practice.
Managers must consider how often, how intensely, and what time of year to burn; for insights they often look to how and when fires burned historically. However, attempting to mimic historical wildfires that burned in hot, dry conditions is risky. Burning in fall or spring when temperature and humidity are low reduces the risk of prescribed fires becoming uncontrollable, but does it have the intended effects? How do forest ecosystems that historically were adapted to fire respond when fire is reintroduced after so much time without it?
Forest Service researchers Becky Kerns and Michelle Day conducted a long-term experiment in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, to assess how season and time between prescribed burns affect understory plant communities in ponderosa pine forests. They found that some native plants persisted and recovered from fire but didn’t respond vigorously, while invasive species tended to spread. These findings may help forest managers design more effective prescribed-fire treatments and avoid unintended consequences.
Kantor, Sylvia; Kerns, Becky; Day, Michelle. 2020. Can prescribed fire do the work we hired it to do?. Science Findings 226. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 5 p.