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When fire is essential

Fire good. Not only is that a line from Frankenstein’s monster, portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 movie, but it’s also the opinion of many who perform the centuries-old practice of prescribed burning as a way to keep forests healthy. The practice as performed on federal forestland by U.S. Forest Service fire crews, that burn thousands of acres, uses aerial and ground attack. “The objectives on this is to duff layer down to a quarter percent and then to try to get rid of a lot of this hardwood,” Branden Sultemeier, fire management officer trainee with the U.S. Forest Service, said in April during a prescribed burn of 3,800 acres of federal forestland near Camp Claiborne in southern Rapides Parish. That particular prescribed burn was to improve habitat restoration for longleaf pine and protection of the red-cockaded woodpecker, he said. “On some of these upper rolling hills, we want to reduce that sweet gum, reduce the hardwoods and get back to that longleaf pine overstory and grass understory, prairie-type of habitat,” Sultemeier said. Ten members of the crew work a perimeter of the area to be burned, lighting the dried needles and brush using drip torches. As smoke rises from the slow-burning area, a helicopter, contracted to fly fire crew members with a machine that table tennis-type balls filled with potassium permanganate. The machine, called the Delayed Aerial Ignition Device, pierces the balls and injects ethylene glycol. The amount of the mixture determines the length of time before the ball ignites and sets fire to small spots on the forest floor. Heat and smoke generated by the interior fire draws the perimeter fires toward the center of the area to be burned. Sultemeier said the fire burns quickly enough to not negatively affect the soil. It actually allows more of the nutrients from the decaying material to return to the soil, he said. “That’s why we like these low-intensity fires going through here because that way it doesn’t boil the soil or sterilize anything. It just kind of eats it up and puts it back in,” Sultemeier said. That material, if allowed to pile up, adds fuel to a fire. The higher the fuel, the higher the flames and the greater chance of trees being destroyed in the event of a wildfire. Wildlife benefits as forest floor cover is burned and makes way for new green-up, he said, though the benefits will be almost immediately. “Turkeys love to get in the black, too,” Sultemeier said as a young hen darts across a forest road after being spooked by his truck as the perimeter of the prescribed burn area was patrolled. “They get in there and scratch for grubs and all sorts of good stuff.” The turkey’s favorable view of the burned area seemed evident by the fowl’s slow pace after trotting a short distance, appearing as though it was waiting for the truck to leave so it could return to its search for food. Russ Marchion, fire management officer, said although it would be on a much smaller scale, private forest landowners should be encouraged to include prescribed burning in their management plan. “Even if they have 10 acres of timberland, doing exactly what we’re doing every two to five years on a burn rotation will benefit their trees and their grass forage,” Marchion said. “As far as the pine, it’s fire-dependent. It needs fire in order to reproduce and grow.” Private forest landowners whose property is adjacent to federal land that is regularly burned through prescription also can get help to have their acreage burned, Marchion said. The Wyden Agreement allows the federal government to include private property in a prescribed burn under certain conditions. “The important part is it has to be advantageous to the government,” Marchion said. “There’s no money exchanged. We don’t bill anybody; they don’t pay us to do anything. But for us to continue our burn if we can incorporate this chunk of land, which a homeowner wants to burn the property, then we’ll incorporate it in together.” One example Marchion gave was if a bulldozer was needed to create a fire line, but an adjacent landowner had a good forest road that could be used as a barrier, the private land could be included. “Basically we do some government paperwork and it’s good for a couple of years,” he said. He said the property owner has the choice each cycle whether he would like the property to be included in the prescribed burn. However, the burn schedule is determined by the Forest Service, which might not burn on a regular schedule under certain circumstance, such as right before a timber sale. Many of the private landowners in the state, however, own only small pieces of the more than 14 million acres of forests in Louisiana. But even those forest landowners should consider prescribed burns, said retired forester Ed Robidaux. “Many small landowners often doesn’t know much about managing land, and it’s not their fault,” Robichaux said. “It’s not their line of work.” The lack of burning could negatively affect the land, as well as increase the risk of wildfire causing more damage, he said. Robichaux said that through most of the 1980s, the state did a good job of helping small forest landowners, but as forestry moved to different areas of state government, other changes have occurred. “It’s difficult to do prescribed burning for small landowners,” Robichaux said. Recent changes, though, has allowed more help. Dena Ginn, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry regional administrator for North Louisiana, said the department’s recent addition of 10 firefighters statewide and prescribed burning crews can make it easier. Also, the LDAF can offer small forest landowners help with the cost through the Forest Productivity Program (FPP). “We try to keep lists,” she said. “We try to have it on a first come, first served basis.” The FPP is a cost-sharing program, which helps private landowners pay for good forestry practices such as prescribed burning. “It reduces fuel, which reduces the chance of a wildfire,” Ginn said. “It also helps wildlife and reduces competition in a pine stand.” The cost is about $20 per acre in most cases, but it’s $25 per acre after a clear cut, she said. There is a minimum charge of $300, so small landowners whose land is continuous could work together for a single burn. Private forest landowners can contact a district LDAF office to find out more or go to the LDAF website,, click on Forestry on the left menu items, then on Management to find information about the FPP. Landowners with forest property near federal forests in Louisiana can contact Marchion during normal business hours at 318-793-9427, the Calcasieu office of the U.S. Forest Service.

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