Voices of the Future (1) - The Use of Prescribed Fires on Pennsylvania Private Lands

FIRE – Not Such a Bad Thing After All          

by Coby Salmon
Forest Science major, graduating May, 2016


To best understand how our forests in Pennsylvania work, you must know and understand their history.

The mixed-oak forest type dominated the Pennsylvania forests through the middle of the 20th century. Burned often by the Native Americans and then the settlers, the forests of Pennsylvania favored fire-adapted species. Heavily fire-adapted mixed-oak forest types need fires to maintain their dominance. The anti-fire regime started around 1911 with the implementation of the Weeks Act that established state fire wardens. The Clarke-McNary Act further expanded the anti-fire regime by improving the federal-state partnership for fighting fires.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Program provided an ample amount of manpower to be used to fight fires which led to the 10 a.m. Policy to further suppress fires.  The Smokey Bear campaign worked fantastically to bring people’s awareness about forest fires and how to prevent them. 

Flaws of the Policies

Forest fire prevention and suppression caused an excess of fuels in the west and a decrease of fuels in the east.  Many ecosystems of the West require regular fires to keep the fuel loads low and reduce ladder fuels, thus preventing catastrophic crown fires.  Eastern ecosystems require fires to maintain the mixed-oak forest type and suppress fire-intolerant species.  Fire-intolerant species include maples, birch, and many other mesophytic hardwoods that thrive in the absence of fire because they have thin bark and epigeal germination.  Oaks thrive with fire because they have fire adaptive characteristics including thick bark and hypogeal germination.  Hypogeal germination means that the oaks put more effort into establishing roots than establishing a tall shoot.  The extensive root systems of oak saplings allow oaks to survive forest fires even though other regeneration dies.  This allows them to out-compete regeneration of fire-intolerant species that either died from the fire or lost most of their energy.  The absence of fire allows the mesophytic hardwoods to suppress oaks.  Furthermore, less flammable mesophytic leaves lay flat on the forest floor which traps moisture.  The more moisture in fuels, the less likely fires will spread; the less likely fires will spread, the more mesophytic hardwoods thrive.  The absence of fires not only allows fire-intolerant species to flourish, it changes the composition of the forests through this process called mesophication.  Oaks, on the other hand, produce leaves that curl when dropped which allows more air flow around them.  This allows for the leaves to dry out more quickly.  Drier fuels allow for fires to spread; the more fires spread, the more oaks out-compete mesophytic hardwoods.

How it applies to Landowners

Working hard to use prescribed fires, the federal and state governments know and understand the legacies of the previous fire laws.  The management of fuel loads in the west and regeneration of oaks in the east have become the primary uses of prescribed fires.  In 2009, Governor Ed Rendell signed a law into effect that eliminated the possibility of criminal charges against prescribed burns that went awry.  This new law allowed land management agencies like the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR) to use prescribed fires for habitat management and forest regeneration projects.  

What about the private land owner?  The PGC and DCNR can only burn on their public lands.  Out of the 16.7 million acres of forestland in just Pennsylvania alone, private land owners possess 11,857,000 acres, an impressive 71% of the total forest land in Pennsylvania.  The DCNR’s Pennsylvania Prescribe Fire Standard briefly mentions private land owners.  Private landowners cannot prescribe burn their own property to regenerate their forests in the favor of oaks by themselves.  Private land owners need to have a state recognized prescribed burn manager (burn boss) to be able to manage their prescribed burns.   Burn bosses are hard to come by which means prescribed burns on private property are rare.

The Proposed Course of Action

1. Establish a multi-step program to educate private landowners on:
  • The benefits of prescribed fires.
  • How to apply prescribed fires to their own land.
2. Hire more service foresters for the sole purpose of aiding in the planning and application of private prescribed burns.

3. Establish strict guidelines, specific to forest landowners, for the planning and implementation of the prescribed burn.
  • They must provide the manpower that possess both the certifications and physical requirements for Type II Firefighter
  • If they cannot provide the manpower, they must pay for the use of State employees who meet the requirements. The cost will be subsidized so as not to over burden the landowner with costs.
4. Establish policies preventing insurance companies for penalizing landowners for properly conducting prescribed burns.

5. Budget more money for each district to purchase more firefighting equipment for the use on private lands.

6. Aid in the establishment of prescribed burn associations throughout the state.

Prescribed burns done by private landowners can and do work as long as the proper protocol is in place and followed.  Check out this video.

Why I Care

Blessed with 286 acres in a little valley near Chambersburg, PA, my family developed a love and passion for the outdoors and a desire to manage it properly.  My love of the outdoors inspired me to earn my Associate’s in Forest Technology and pursue my Bachelors of Science in Forest Science.  I know the benefits of prescribed burns in our forests and want desperately to manage my family’s property with fire.  In 2005 my father and uncle decided to implement a fifty-five acre timber stand improvement harvest.  The harvest ended up turning into a shelterwood harvest and produced an impressive amount of oak regeneration.  Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), black birch (Betula lenta), red maple (Acer rubrum), blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis), and black raspberry (R. occidentalis) grow alongside the oak regeneration in the stand.  Aside from the blackberry and black raspberry, these species inhibit the ability for the oaks to thrive.  A prescribed burn will top kill tree regeneration including the oaks.  The oaks will be able to bounce back and flourish, suppressing the mesophytic hardwoods.  Unfortunately, I have yet to find a burn boss to be able to burn my land.  The course of action I proposed will not only allow me to burn my land but provide the 738,000 private landowners the opportunity to do the same with their lands.

Only you can change forest policy.  Call your representative today.

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Carla said…
Chuck, the video and Why I care at the end are the best part. Please have those guys come and talk to your students.

Thanks for keeping the best blog around going.

-Carla Harper
Andy B. said…
Well said. Nice finish with the "Only you" request.

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