Picture it: you’re driving down a rural highway on a clear afternoon near sunset. In the distance, you notice barreling light grey smoke. Next, the clarity of your surroundings becomes increasingly hazy. You smell the smoke before you get into the thick of it. Before you know it, you’ve stumbled upon a blazing pasture or thicket of woodlands of massive proportions.
In this situation, if you don’t know any better, you might think it’s a fire that warrants a call to 911. Chances are greater than not that these public safety officials already know and there’s no need to worry.
Controlled burns like these are an important tool for maintaining the safety and overall health of a particular piece of land. Sometimes called prescribed burns as well, these fires are planned for a time when the blaze won’t pose a threat to the public or fire managers. In areas like Emanuel County, weather conditions are just right in the fall, hence why you see more of them this time of year. (Burns are explicitly banned in 54 counties in the Peach State every year between May 1 and September 30 because conditions would be hazardous and would cause ground-level formation of ozone. However, most of these counties are in the metropolitan or suburban area of Georgia and excludes Emanuel.) The ideal situation for a controlled fire is to allow the burning but not enable the fire to spread out of control. Materials burned in a planned fire include dead grass, fallen tree branches, dead trees, and thick undergrowth.
Before a controlled burn is lit, a plan—or prescription—is drawn up. This plan includes details on how big the fire will be, what it will burn, and what managers hope to accomplish with the fire. It also includes the weather and environmental conditions under which the fire will burn and any situations that might require the fire to be extinguished. Controlled-burn managers also map out how the fire will be set, how the smoke will be managed, how to inform the public, what protective equipment might be needed, and what firefighting resources should be standing by.
Two types of controlled burning are most commonly used. The first, broadcast burning, involves lighting fires across a tract of land, from a few acres to thousands of acres in size. The second, pile burning, involves stacks of vegetation that are burned individually. Pile burning can be used when conditions are not safe to set a larger fire. In this case, leaves, limbs, and other debris are cut, collected, and stacked up to be burned, often at a later time when weather conditions permit. Pile burning is sometimes used to burn slash, the remnants of forest thinning or logging operations.
Controlled burns are lit for a number of reasons. By ridding a forest of dead leaves, tree limbs, and other debris, a prescribed burn can help prevent a destructive wildfire. Controlled burns can also reduce insect populations and destroy invasive plants. In addition, fire can be rejuvenating. It returns nutrients to the soil in the ashes of vegetation that could otherwise take years to decompose. And after a fire, the additional sunlight and open space in a forest can help young trees and other plants start to grow.
Some plants, such as certain pine species, require fire before the cones or fruits containing the seeds can release them. These cones or fruits need fire to melt a resin that holds the seeds inside. As a result, without fire these species cannot reproduce.
Controlled burns have become more important as fire suppression efforts have grown over the last century. Historically, smaller fires occurred in forests at regular intervals. When these fires are suppressed, flammable materials accumulate, insect infestations increase, forests become more crowded with trees and underbrush, and invasive plant species move in. Controlled burns seek to accomplish the benefits that regular fires historically provided to an environment while also preventing the fires from burning out of control and threatening life and property.
As a general statement, this practice is a safe way to apply a natural process, ensure ecosystem health, and reduce the risk of wildfires. The Georgia Forestry Commission must issue a permit for a burn to be legal, and the process is a thorough one. The applicant must outline the boundaries, list adjacent landowners, specify the topography and control lines, and show the anticipated direction of smoke as well as smoke-sensitive areas nearby.
On the whole, Georgians prescribe burn 1.4 million acres per year. To obtain a burn permit, visit GaTrees.org, call 877-OK2-BURN, or call the Emanuel County Forestry Unit at 478-289-2564.