Monday, November 24, 2014

"Emulating natural disturbance factors?"

The leaves on my backyard chinquapin oak have only recently started to fall. In a matter of days and weeks, Missouri’s 31 year old woodland prescribed fire season will begin in earnest. Sadly, and due primarily to reckless and/or under-educated practitioners who are not well versed in the power of this natural process, prescribed fire may be implemented not as a means of responsibly emulating a natural disturbance, but as a destructive tool that few should be allowed to use. Much as one would not willingly allow a 2 year old to hold a scalpel in an operating room, one should be cautious of the power of fire and the person behind the torch.

Most unfortunate (from my perspective) is that much of the fire-related damage I’ve seen in recent years is preventable, and largely due to improper fireline placement and timing. Fireline installation is underway all over the state, so I'd like to reiterate this basic fact, an integral part of any responsible burn plan: roads and trails do not make appropriate firelines. To truly emulate a historic fire regime (which is challenging in itself in the Ozarks due to dominant out-of-historic-context fuel types resulting from years of abuse by logging, grazing, and fire suppression), a responsible practitioner will allow fire to move naturally across the landscape, will allow fire to follow topography, aspect, slope with properly designed burn units that include appropriate fuels and historic fire-mediated systems. Old logging roads and hiking trails were not designed with fire behavior in mind. Too many times in recent years I’ve noted highly destructive forces at work from improperly placed firelines, and it’s giving responsible fire a bad name, along with burning out of historic prescription and burning areas that likely never saw fire on a frequent return interval.

So, I’ve repeatedly written for years that significant woodland acreage across the Missouri Ozarks no longer resembles its historic character, that of large diameter oaks mantled in grasses, sedges and forbs. I’ve reiterated that high quality sites are hard to come by, that I seek them out, but it’s becoming harder to find them thanks to mismanagement -the human element-, deer overpopulation, and continued development. Our scattered nice sites exist today as vignettes, not largescale landscapes. I spend time in nice woods, and I help develop really nice burn units in appropriate settings for fires that follow a cogent prescription with restoration or maintenance in mind. I do hate to cast stones, but just as the vitriolic Westboro Baptist Church does not accurately portray religion, irresponsible practitioners do not represent all of fire management in the state.

If you'd like to follow along with fire season, to check in with Spot Weather Forecasts so carefully forecast by our wonderful folks at the Springfield NOAA office, go here. May others listen and learn from the ongoing discussions, and may we carry fire forward responsibly to help restore fire-mediated systems across Missouri this winter.

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