No other habitat management practice can positively impact as many acres in such a short period of time and for as little money as prescribed fire. Many state wildlife agencies have been taking advantage of this cost-effective tool for years to improve habitat on public lands. As a former field supervisor for the Georgia DNR, I had the opportunity to participate in dozens of burns covering thousands of acres annually. Unfortunately, prescribed fire is often underutilized on private lands due to a lack of knowledge or, in some cases, a fear of the practice. The use of fire is not something to be taken lightly or without proper planning, but when performed under the right weather conditions, with the guidance of a trained burn boss, it can be a very safe and effective tool for the deer manager.
The Origins of Prescribed Fire
While the use of prescribed fire to improve wildlife habitat is on the rise, it is certainly not a new concept. Natural fires caused by lightning strikes shaped the North American landscape for thousands of years, and Native Americans took notice of fire’s benefits. They used fire for a variety of reasons, from clearing land to grow food to reducing pests such as rodents and venomous snakes. But they also saw the improvements fire made to the habitat and how wildlife responded favorably to a burn.
Fire Has Its Benefits
The same benefits the Native Americans saw in fire are still relevant today. Periodic prescribed fire burns off leaf litter from the forest floor, returns nutrients to the soil and kills encroaching hardwood saplings. This, in turn, stimulates the growth of various grasses, legumes and other herbaceous plants. This new growth is typically more nutritious and palatable than it was prior to burning. Fire can also encourage the growth of soft-mast species like blackberry and pokeweed when adequate sunlight reaches the forest floor.
For deer, this means more cover and more forage. However, in forested areas, fire alone may not yield the desired results. For fire to really promote understory growth, there has to be enough openings in the forest canopy so sunlight can reach the forest floor. If it can’t, then some type of timber harvest needs to take place to reap the benefits of prescribed fire.
It should also be noted that prescribed fire is not a once-and-done process. Adopting prescribed fire on your hunting area is committing to a periodic, long-term process. For white-tailed deer, an area should typically be burned in a rotation every few years depending on the region. Depending on the size of the property, you will probably want to break it up into multiple “burn blocks” so you aren’t burning off your entire hunting area at once. By burning different blocks in different years, you will create a patchwork of diverse habitat that provides a variety of cover and forage for the deer.
Is Fire Right for You?
To burn or not to burn? That is the question. To answer it, you must first consider whether fire will actually benefit your property. That requires assessing your current habitat conditions, making a decision about what needs to be improved (do I need more cover, more hard mast, more native grasses and forbs?) and deciding if fire is your best option to get the desired results.
You’ll also want to consider your long-term objectives for the property. Are you managing for maximum timber value, wildlife habitat or a mix of both? How you answer that question can have a tremendous impact on how you proceed with your habitat management plans. If you are managing hardwoods for maximum timber value, then fire may not be the tool for you. However, openings and southern pine stands will almost always benefit from prescribed fire and those benefits will carry over into the resulting wildlife habitat.
The timing of your burn is anther important consideration. Most prescribed fires are conducted between December and March during the “dormant season.” This time of year, the weather is more predictable and typically provides temperatures more comfortable for burning. This is also the time of year when fire is less likely to result in timber mortality. Growing-season burns — those conducted from April through September — do a better job of controlling woody vegetation and can provide more plant diversity. Their timing, however, requires careful planning and it can sometimes be challenging to catch the right weather conditions for your burn.
Before you start planning a prescribed burn where you hunt, consider the potential safety hazards. Are there any smoke-sensitive areas within a 5-mile radius, such as an airport, major highway or interstate, hospital, school, or housing development? If so, could using a specific wind direction allow you to avoid these sensitive areas? Having a smoke-sensitive area nearby doesn’t eliminate the possibility of using prescribed fire, but it does mean you’ll have to take some added precautions and plan accordingly.
Prepare for Ignition
The first step to preparing for a prescribed burn is to have a detailed burn plan written up by a trained professional. In some states, your state forestry or wildlife agency may be able to provide this service. This burn plan will serve as your guide for an effective and safe prescribed fire. It should include information about the property being burned — it’s size, location, current habitat conditions, fuel load, as well as any potential safety concerns. Safety concerns may include structures on the property, utility poles, propane tanks, or any other feature that could be negatively impacted by a fire. The burn plan should include a map highlighting all these features, as well as the firebreaks and any smoke sensitive areas.
The plan should also include the desired timing and weather conditions for the burn, including a range for the temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, and smoke dispersion index. Both timing and weather can have major impacts on fire intensity and how the fire will impact the habitat where you hunt, and it is important to monitor those weather conditions throughout the burning process.
Manpower and equipment needs to safely conduct the burn should also be highlighted in the burn plan. You will want enough people to safely conduct the burn and monitor the perimeter of the burn until it completed. This could be as few as two people for a very small burn area, up to dozens of folks for a very large burn.
Another important aspect of preparing for a prescribed fire is making sure there are good firebreaks in place to contain the fire within the area you want to burn. These firebreaks can be existing barriers, like a stream or road, or they can be ones you create just for the purpose of stopping the fire. While I’ve been involved with burns using leaf-blown paths and mowed grass that was wetted prior to starting the fire as firebreaks, I would personally recommend working from a nice wide firebreak of exposed soil created with a disk or tiller.
And lastly, to prepare for a prescribed fire, you need to make sure you have access to the necessary equipment to conduct the fire safely. You will need tools to light the fire, such as a drip torch or flare; tools to suppress the fire, like a backpack or ATV sprayer, garden rakes or shovels; as well as personal protective equipment for all those who will be involved. While wearing fire retardant clothing made of nomex is preferable, at a minimum, you should wear clothes made of natural fibers such as cotton or wool. Clothes made from synthetic material like nylon or polyester could potentially melt and cause severe burns. Leather boots and gloves are a must, and a helmet and eye protection are highly recommended. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to have a chainsaw on hand in case you need to cut down any trees or snags along the firebreak that could potentially cause fire to cross the break.
Burn Baby Burn
On the day of the burn, current and forecasted weather conditions should be within the parameters set forth in the burn plan. While a detailed plan of how to conduct the burn is beyond the scope of this article, I would like to cover some of the best practices for executing a prescribed burn. For more information on the various ways to perform a prescribed burn, I encourage you to check out the article 4 Ways to Light a Prescribed Fire.
First off, as already stated, a burn plan should have been professionally prepared and everyone involved in the burn should have a copy of the plan with a detailed map of the burn unit. Everyone should be familiar with the firebreaks, and I would highly recommend each person make a trip around the burn unit to ensure they understand the layout of the unit and its firebreaks. Over the years, I’ve been on more than one fire where more acres were burned than initially planned because the person lighting the fire missed a turn in the break and continued lighting. Fortunately none of those got out-of-hand, but any miscue while burning can lead to serious consequences.
On that note, everyone involved in the burn needs to be able to communicate with one another, either by cell phone or two-way radio. That way, if the fire gets across a break, or weather conditions start to change, everyone can be notified. This is especially important on larger fires, so the burn boss can track the progress of the fire from everyone posted around the perimeter and shift resources as needed.
Prescribed fire is not right for everyone, but if you’re managing your hunting land with a primary focus on wildlife and you’re in an area where it’s safe to burn, then prescribed fire may be the perfect tool for improving your wildlife habitat and deer hunting.
Prior to lighting a match, any necessary permits should have been acquired, and local authorities should be notified. This includes your county 911 dispatch or at least the local fire department. It’s also a good idea to contact your state forestry department if you didn’t already do so to obtain a permit. This will prevent them from unnecessarily sending out personnel under what may be perceived as an emergency situation to your location. As a courtesy, you should also notify any neighbors who may be impacted so they don’t panic when they look out their windows and see a large smoke plume.
You’ll also want to double check your weather conditions and forecast before lighting the fire and continue to monitor those conditions throughout the course of your burn. It’s amazing how much a small drop in relative humidity can affect fire behavior, so if conditions start to fall outside the parameters of your burn plan, you may need a contingency plan for cutting the fire short. If that’s not possible, you can at least alert those helping with the fire to keep a close eye on the firebreaks and be prepared for the worst.
Sometimes on-site conditions vary from those reported from local news sources, so it’s always a good idea to gather data on site, when possible. If you have access to a weather tool, like a Kestrel, you can monitor the temperature, humidity and wind speeds. Another great way to check those conditions on-site is with a small test fire. By lighting a small, manageable area in your burn block, you will be able to determine how well your fuels are going to burn, wind direction, fire intensity and smoke dispersion. If your test fire reveals that the local conditions are outside the parameters of your burn plan, then you can easily extinguish the fire and wait until the conditions are more suitable for your burn.
As your burn nears completion, it is important to do a good job of mopping up before you call the job done. Mopping up is the process of putting out any remaining fires within the burn unit that could potentially result in fire spreading outside of the burn unit. It’s a good idea to make one or two more trips around the firebreaks to put out anything left smoldering within 100 feet of the break, especially any trees or snags that are still burning. If you have a tree or snag that may pose a problem, round up the chainsaw and bring the tree down inside the firebreak and extinguish the fire.
Even after a thorough mop-up, it’s always a good idea to come back later that evening and even again the next day just to make sure no logs, trees or snags have reignited.
Did It Work?
An often overlooked step in conducting a successful prescribed burn is a follow up visit. You should always check the burn site in the weeks following the burn to determine how well the fire met your objectives. Did you kill the saplings you were hoping to kill? Did you burn off as much of the duff layer as you had hoped? Did you scorch any trees you were trying to protect? This is where you analyze how things went and make decisions on how you may improve future burns. Be sure to write these results down and keep them with the original burn plan for future reference.
The Native Americans saw the way fire impacted the land and the benefits it brought to wildlife populations, and many of today’s deer managers have discovered those same benefits as well. Prescribed fire is not right for everyone, but if you’re managing your hunting land with a primary focus on wildlife and you’re in an area where it’s safe to burn, then prescribed fire may be the perfect tool for improving your wildlife habitat and deer hunting.