CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — You probably know that prescribed forest burnings somehow help the health of a forest, but how are these burnings started and what are they actually meant to solve?
How do burns help?
Last month, Monongahela National Forest announced their prescribed burnings for the spring season, so 12 News asked the forest why these burns take place and were given a handful of reasons:
- Improve wildlife habitats by removing unwanted species that threaten native species in an ecosystem, and improving the habitat for threatened or endangered species.
- Enhance forest structure and age diversity by returning nutrients to the soil that promote the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants.
- Restore historic, natural fire regimes.
- Control tree diseases and insects.
- Reduce hazardous fuel amounts of dead wood and brush that can be dangerous to nearby communities.
Fires are part of the natural lifecycle of any forest. Some trees have evolved to have thick bark that allows them to survive forest fires, and there are even some plant species that need fire to reproduce, like the Jack pine (Pinus banksiana, also known as a grey pine or scrub pine) and the Table Mountain pine.
How do you safely burn a forest?
Before a single fire is lit, burn teams have to consider many factors as they come up with a plan. Public safety, protection of private property, staffing and equipment needs, temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation, and smoke dispersal conditions are all factored into how, when or where a prescribed burn will happen.
“Prescribed burning is a complicated process and literally takes years of planning,” said an Assistant Fire Management Officer and the Monongahela National Forest. “Every prescribed burn has a burn plan that is updated regularly.”
Each burn plan also goes through a public review process for affected communities to voice concerns of feedback.
But once a burn plan is made, how do you start a “safe” fire? Burn teams use a variety of tools such as drones, biodegradable fire-starting spheres, helicopters and “dip torches.” Natural features like streams, ridgelines and even old service roads will also be used to fence in the flames, usually supplemented with teams of firemen using handheld leaf blowers to keep fires burning in the right direction.
Watch a remote-controlled drone drop fire starters from the air.
Is it safe for wildlife?
Monongahela National Forest said burns are planned and timed to have a minimal impact on wildlife. One example given is that a certain area may be excluded in a burn because of a sensitive species, and wildlife biologists are often consulted during the planning process.
How long do they last?
The planning portion can take years, but the part where things are actively on fire can take anywhere from a day to a week depending on weather and fuel conditions. Sometimes burns will be divided into units that are burned over the course of a year during different seasons. One unit may be burned in the spring or fall, and others might be burned every year.
If you see a forest fire and wonder if it is prescribed or not, you can view an interactive map of active prescribed and wild fires on InciWeb. If see an active forest fire, call 911 or contact the West Virginia Division of Forestry at 304-558-2788.