After a few years of burning wildlife openings we were ready for our first woods burn. We were aiming for a low intensity fire that would clean up the under growth and increase herbaceous vegetation in a ten acre southwest facing stand. This would be our test plot, which was chosen because the aspect and elevation meant that it had fire adapted species. A moist north facing slope would contain more fire intolerant species like poplar and black cherry. This stand mostly consisted of w well spaced mature pines and oak. Lastly, the terrain and tree density , unlike other stands permitted the development of fire breaks.
The process began with marking the proposed fire breaks by walking skidded trails and old road beds and then tying them together avoiding drainages as much as possible. These were mapped, as are all our other land management features using the geographic information systems data model we developed to handle land management, Geoforst.
Next, the firebreaks were created by first bush hogging the path and then alternately using a field plow and a disk harrow to ensure that a good barrier to fire was created. Getting off the tractor and moving logs and rocks is necessary.
We then contacted the state forestry commission and scheduled to meet with a forester in charge of prescribed burning. He stopped by and discussed goals, strategy, and looked over the fire breaks. We arranged for them to be back in a week when the weather was good and they had available time.
To protect the hardwoods, we walked the stand marking crop trees. In this case, crop trees were undamaged hardwoods with good form. Since we knew that the fire would be low intensity we did not expect any mortality of the mature oaks, but we did not want to run the risk of fire scarring them. The mature pines are very tolerant of fire and we plan to harvest them in the next ten years and were therefore re no concern.
To ensure no damage to the crop trees we did two things. First we removed all brush from the trunks of the trees. Secondly we raked the leaf matter from around the trunks. We felt this was important since it was the first time these woods had been burned in at least fifty years. An alternate method used a backpack leaf blower which works well purportedly. This was not available so we went with the rake.
At this point we were truly ready and were now waiting on the weather. The day came and the forestry commission showed up with three men and a bulldozer just in case. We wanted all the protection we could be since the we really didn’t know what we were in for. Conditions were mild and the fire was very manageable. Watching how things were done and asking lots of questions has us very confident that we can perform the next burn without assistance.
The next stage will be monitoring the results. Since this was a very low intensity fire, there will likely need to be several more in close succession to accomplish our goals. Ideally we’d like to stimulate oak regeneration, but literature on the subject seems contradictory. In fact there are a fair number of foresters that still believe that fire should be excluded from hardwood stands. By culling the Virginia pine and implementing a fire regime, I believe this can be achieved while simutaneously opening the understory to herbaceous vegetation. Our biggest challenge will be over powering the Virginia pine seedlings. At any rate studies show that fires were frequent in the Southern Appalachians, even in hardwood stands. Let’s s e what happens.