Good fire versus bad fire

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Burning season is almost here

By Gene Kodama

Soon, smoke will be in the air as South Carolina’s foresters, farmers and other land managers begin a very busy part of their year.

Traditional controlled burning season is fast approaching and is the time when the ancient tool of controlled fire (good fire) is put to use for the benefit of all South Carolinians. Controlled burning (igniting forest fires under controlled conditions) has many benefits including reducing the risk of wildfire (bad fire), preparing land for planting, controlling diseases and undesirable plants and enhancing wildlife habitat.

Native Americans often used fire for creating habitat for game and opening up the woods. Lightning was setting fires long before their time and even today, so  fire in the woods is a completely natural phenomenon.

These fires created forest landscapes and ecosystems that are dependent on fire for their existence. For example, natural long-leaf pine forest ecosystems are heavily dependent on periodic fires to exist and maintain themselves. Fire is a natural and critical part of the environment and has been that way since long before mankind came along to influence its occurrence.

However, unlike uncontrolled, unplanned conflagrations that can result from wildfires, modern science now allows us to safely apply fire in a positive manner. Though fire is often misunderstood, today’s forestry professionals know how to combine the right weather and forest fuel conditions with proper burning techniques. This ensures that flames and their movement are controlled and capture the positive attributes of fire in the woods without the negative consequences of an uncontrolled wildfire.

The S.C. Forestry Commission offers controlled burning and plows firelines in preparation for burning as part of its many services to landowners. Qualified commission foresters bring the proper tools, equipment and knowledge to produce high-quality results. Most of them have already fought on the frontlines of many wildfires and therefore understand fire and its potential impacts. This perspective makes these men and women an ideal choice for conducting controlled burns on our forest and farm lands. They each have a personal mission to improve our forest’s productivity and reduce the risk of wildfire. Commission contact information can be found at www.trees.sc.gov, or in just about any local telephone book.

Controlled burning is so ingrained in and important to our culture and history that it is even provided for in the state code of laws.

Title 48-34 is the S.C. Prescribed Fire Act. This chapter illustrates the importance of prescribed fire and lays out the laws for its proper application. Among other things, Title 48-34 requires the preparation and use of a written fire plan. It also defines training requirements for becoming a certified prescribed fire manager, provides that such fires are in the public interest and not a nuisance when conducted properly, and that prescribed fires are a property right.

The wildfire that tore through Horry County in April 2009 was a painful reminder of the clear difference between good fire from controlled burning and bad fire.

It showed how aggressive and remorseless nature can be when left alone. The wildfire destroyed about 200 homes and produced almost $50 million in damages.

The fire was also a reminder that

– High forest fuel loads in close proximity to homes can be a deadly mix.

– Controlled burning can substantially reduce fuel loading and potential for wildfire damage.

– Adequate fire control staffing and proper equipment must be readily available to prevent catastrophic results.

Obviously, controlled burning is an extremely valuable tool that must be retained and properly used to protect timber, wildlife, recreation and natural beauty, as well as people and homes.

Yes, we have the knowledge to use this proven tool at our disposal. To ignore this opportunity and the known difference between good fire and bad fire would be detrimental to our forests and increase the danger to lives and property from wildfires that will occur in the future.

– Gene Kodama is head of the S.C. Forestry Commission.