UACES Facebook Arkansas Smoke Management | Prescribed Fire, Controlled Burn

Smoke Management in Arkansas

Successful Smoke Management | Los Padres National Forest | US Forest Service
Plume rising straight up demonstrates high altitude winds moving smoke away from adjacent populated areas.  [Image courtesy Los Padres National Forest, US Forest Service]

Accounts from early explorers and detailed data from Government Land Office surveys typically describe much of Arkansas – before extensive European settlement – as grassy open woodlands with abundant wildflowers and numerous prairies and barrens.  Today, most of Arkansas looks quite different.  From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, the state's forests were heavily harvested.  Faced with a stripped landscape, people realized what had been lost and took measures that seemed logical at the time; the forests were allowed to grow and fires were largely suppressed.

Scientific studies of tree rings taken from sites throughout Arkansas reveal that fire historically swept through the region every five to eight years.  Since the early to mid-20th century, most of the state's forests have grown without natural under-story fires, causing tree density to increase substantially.  With more trees competing for nutrients and water, forests can become weak and vulnerable to drought, disease and pests.  The red oak borer is a native insect that has eaten its way through 1.6 million acres of Arkansas' oaks in recent years.  Without fire, shade-tolerant trees proliferate in the under-story and crowd out the plants and animals specifically adapted to the region's pine & oak forests.  Plant species that require sunlight and provide food sources – like oaks, grasses and wildflowers – can't reproduce.

These crowded conditions also increase the risk of intense, uncontrollable wildfires.  The destruction caused by other natural disturbances such as ice and tornadoes is also increased by forest crowding. In the prairies, widespread fire suppression over several decades has allowed woody plants to grow up and shade out wildflowers and grasses that require sunlight.  As native plants disappear and incompatible land practices increase, wildlife habitat decreases and soil erosion and invasive plant species become increasingly problematic.

Prescribed Fire (Controlled Burn)

Carefully managed prescribed fires have been re-introduced in select areas by state, federal, and non-government entities in an effort to maintain and restore the health and diversity of Arkansas' plants and animals.  An importance has been placed on rare pockets of forest and grassland ecosystems that resemble conditions more common in the 19th century.  Efforts have been extended to include privately owned lands in Arkansas.

Before conducting a prescribed burn, conduct the following steps:

Hazardous Fuel Reduction

Prescribed fire showing smoke moving away from highway.  [Image courtesy Kyle Cunningham, University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture]

Fuel reduction is one of the most common reasons for wanting to conduct a prescribed burn.  This is no more than reduction of the amount of fuel on the ground that will burn.  This may include grass thatch, leaves, limbs, even logging debris and piles.  The primary reason to burn for hazard reduction is to reduce the chance of a destructive wildfire.  Often, this type of burn is the only objective when an area hasn't been burned in decades.  Once a hazard reduction burn has occurred, additional objectives can be accomplished in subsequent burns.

Planting and Regeneration

Prescribed burning is often conducted to prepare the seedbed for mechanical, hand-planted, or natural regeneration of seedlings.  By piling and burning the previous forest remains, the seedbed is open for easier access and more effective planting success.  This is a common and cost-effective technique used by industrial forest product industries called "site prep burning."  Burning can remove excessive plant material, reduce competition and provide more opportunities for seed to soil contact.  In addition, the fire provides a healthy dose of potash and creates a heat-absorbing black soil to further stimulate germination.  This is an especially important process for naturally regenerating fire-adapted species within an existing forest such as oak, and also for native, warm-season grasses and forbs in open areas.  There is such a thing as too hot, however, as overly dry or excessively heavy fuel can sterilize a soil bed in extreme situations.

Vegetation Control

Not all plant species respond to a prescribed fire equally.  Many of Arkansas' native forest and grassland species respond positively to frequent, low to moderate-intensity fires.  However, due to the long-standing restraint on fire management, many native, fire-intolerant species have accumulated outside their historic range.  Prescribed fire can be used over time to reduce or remove these species.  In addition, many non-native species that have become problematic by out-competing native plants for resources can likewise be managed with fire over time, especially in combination with other effective treatments like herbicide.

Insect and Disease Control

Slow burning prescribed fire in hardwood stand.  [Image courtesy Kyle Cunningham, University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture]

The direct impact of prescribed fire on many insect or disease infestations is not completely understood.  In many cases destructive outbreaks occur when forest or grassland conditions have become unhealthy and succumb to normal fluctuations in insect and disease populations.  The exception to this is when a non-native competitor such as the emerald ash borer or chestnut blight is introduced.   Prescribed fire can help maintain forest and grassland vigor through reduction of dead leaf and grass layers, keeping forest density at lower levels, and encouraging a healthy influx of new growth.  There is also some evidence that smoke may play a role in helping some plants defend themselves from certain insect or disease infestations.

Wildlife Habitat Improvement

Roughly 84 percent of Arkansas' native wildlife is adapted to open or semi-open habitats that were historically maintained by a regular fire.  Without fire, many of these species have become less competitive or have been driven out to find more suitable habitats.  Research shows the absence of regular fire is largely responsible for the decline in Arkansas' quail population. Frequent fire stimulates those plants that provide the best food sources for Arkansas' native animals, including the state's most popular game species.  In addition to food sources, fire can create a diverse habitat that provides nesting, hiding and mating opportunities.

 

Publications

Number Title
FSA5009 Why We Burn: Prescribed Burning as a Management Tool
FSA5016 The Clean Air Act and Prescribed Fire: What It Means for Arkansas
Economic and Environmental Issues in Arkansas: A Policy Perspective | Public Policy Center | University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture Economic and Environmental Issues in Arkansas: A Policy Perspective
Identifying and Addressing Social Constraints Involved with the Use of Prescribed Fire in Forest Ecosystems of the Ouachita and Ozark Regions of Arkansas
Arkansas Voluntary Smoke Management Guidelines | Arkansas Forestry Commission Arkansas Voluntary Smoke Management Guidelines
Arkansas Forestry Commission
Fire history of oak–pine forests in the Lower Boston Mountains, Arkansas, USA | R.P. Guyette, M.A. Spetich | Forest Ecology and Management 180 (2003) 463–474 Fire history of oak–pine forests in the Lower Boston Mountains, Arkansas, USA
by R.P. Guyette and M.A. Spetich | Forest Ecology and Management 180 (2003) 463–474

 

Additional Resources