Call Collett: Firefighters setting woods on fire to improve health of forest

When firefighters set fires in the woods, it’s called a prescription or controlled burn. So far this year, 47,000 acres have been burned in the Francis Marion National Forest (FMNF). The Forest Service is responsible for 260,000 acres of forest in Charleston and Berkeley Counties.

The regular burning of land, usually 800 acres in a single day in the FMNF, reduces the possibility of wildfires like the ones that ripped through the western part of the US in recent months.

California's October wildfires will exceed $3.3 billion in claims for homes and businesses. Some 43 people were killed in the series of October blazes that tore through Northern California.

If crews didn’t conduct controlled burns, researchers with Clemson University told News 2 wildfires would ignite through lightning strikes into the FMNF.


There are 12 communities around the forest at risk for wildfire

“The fire in Gatlinburg in 2016 or in Myrtle Beach in 2009 speak to that reality,” Jeff Davids, National Forest Service, told News 2.

The Francis Marion National Forest conducts prescribed burns from fall through spring to reduce heavy fuel buildup in the forest.  Fuels include dead trees, pine needles, and underbrush.  So far this year, the Forest Service conducted 59 fires.


Forest products are the Port’s top export commodity

But critics like Mark Morris who live in the area say the intense fire is burning up trees that could be sold to loggers for timber. Forest products are the Port’s top export commodity.

“Look around and you can see all kinds of trees that are dying from the fire,” Morris explained from his property tucked inside the woods.  The land was homesteaded by his early relatives, and he’s lived in the forest his entire life.

“When we are killing marketable timber, on tracts that are a thousand acres in size, that is catastrophic fire,” founder of advocacy group Carolina Wildlife Syndicate, David Strickland, explained.  “That timber represents dollars that would fund their own programs.”

And he says dead tree will soon fall and be fuel for a future fire.

“Every limb, every needle and even the tree trunk that hits the ground now become the fuel instead of reducing it,” he explained.

The Forest Service explained that mortality of both trees and animals is a natural response to a natural process being mimiced by the Forest Service.

“It’s not something we initially set out to do,” Davids explained.

Tree mortality resulting from prescribed fire is often far less significant than tree mortality resulting from wildfire, Davids added.

Forging on toward better forests

One of the biggest challenges to reducing fuel in the forest is the tightening of state regulations. Prescribed burns present potential smoke hazards—particularly to those who may suffer from cardiopulmonary disorders or respiratory conditions such as asthma. State regulations means the Forest Service has limited days to burn in areas closest to homes and businesses.

Francis Marion National Forest staff has used prescribed fire as the primary method to achieve forest health and management objects since the 1950s.  Those objectives include restoring the forest to its historical condition with large stands of longleaf pine trees.  Since prescribed fire eliminates shrubs and other competing undergrowth, natural grassy and open habitat of the southern pine forests are restored and provide a better home for the Eastern wild turkey, the flatwoods salamander, and the white-tailed deer.

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