Thirty three years have passed since the prescribed fire program began in my favorite tract of Ozark woodlands. With spring warming occurring much earlier than it did in the 1980s, generally two weeks earlier than even ten years ago with longer periods of winter warm weather breaks, responsible fire management has been crammed into a very short window. The long history of prescribed (and wild) fire in these woodlands has resulted in a rich expression of the area's native flora, fauna and functioning ecosystems. Throughout the 3,900 acre area, fire management has shifted away from ecosystem restoration to maintenance of all facets of biodiversity supported by light intensity, low surface fires occurring on a rotation ranging from three to ten (or even more) years. But to get to that point, early restoration efforts to restore the flashy fuels (grasses, forbs, sedges) which carry light fires faster than thick leaf litter, fire occurred much more frequently. But that was over 20 years ago.
I spent much of last week visiting burn units that were treated with fire in late 2015. There are fire practitioners in the field today who may not understand the function of fire on a landscape for restoration or the idea of achieving a desired condition for landscapes shaped by emulating natural disturbance factors. In some instances, I do not feel confident that a desired condition has even been defined. Because of this, and the lack of understanding of fire intensity in damaged systems, the lack of understanding of ecologically based decisions pertaining to fire behavior, and the misunderstanding of the fragility of our millions of acres of out-of-historic-context woodlands in Missouri, fire application has resulted in utter destruction of potentially restorable ecosystems. But not here.
Thankfully, thirty three years ago when the fire program began in these woodlands, practitioners carefully applied fire with the understanding that the primary driver in early restoration is to achieve light to the woodland floor to encourage the restoration of the herbaceous understory, the flashy fuels that would continue to dictate future fire intensity and frequency. They didn't achieve this restoration by running fire under poorly designed burn units across the area in late April when the herbaceous vegetation was far advanced. They didn't cook the soil but achieved desired condition with patience, with an understanding of topography, fire prescription, and fire effects. So now we're in maintenance mode. Fire isn't necessary every three years to stimulate the herbaceous layer; these woodlands and glades had not seen fire for seven years before the event in late November, but it served its purpose: burned up cedars, removed leaf litter and thatch, but didn't burn every square inch to mineral soil (which can be devastating for a number of reasons including leaving bare soil open to erosion all winter). By understanding topographical design of burn units, of using topography to help dictate the fire regime, there will be areas unburned, some areas burning hotter than others, and so forth. Responsible fire in Missouri is becoming rare, likely due to the lack of trained ecologically sound professionals implementing this ancient, irreplaceable disturbance regime.