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Prescribed burn associations can help

CC Richmond

The summer of 2023 was the hottest, driest summer in memory. Along with the hot dry weather came wildfires. Through the end of October, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s (LDAF) Office of Forestry responded to more than 1,300 wildfires burning almost 58,000 acres statewide.

Forests cover almost 50 percent of Louisiana, with more than one-third being pine dominated. Historically, the piney woods would burn periodically due to the accumulation of highly flammable needles and frequent lightning strikes. These fires would reduce fuel loads and provide protection from catastrophic wildfires.

Indigenous people used fire to remove old vegetation and provide fresh succulent vegetation to attract wildlife for hunting. Early settlers also burned the woods to “freshen up” the vegetation for grazing cattle.

Starting in the early 1900s, burning was discouraged in Louisiana due to perceived risks. However, fire still occurred frequently in the piney woods. By the 1980s, as open range was abolished and most forestland shifted from grazing to hunting leases, much of the burning in the pine forests ended, leading to a buildup of fuels. Debris from Hurricane Laura compounded this issue, bringing fuel loads to dangerous levels. The exceptional drought conditions this summer set the stage for extreme wildfires.

Prescribed fire, or a prescribed burn, is the application of fire by trained individuals to achieve an intended purpose on the landscape. Burns are conducted when weather conditions are favorable for controlling the fire. Up to 700,000 or more acres of forest, range and agricultural lands are prescribe burned annually in Louisiana. These fires can achieve a multitude of benefits, with one of the most important being the reduction of dangerous fuels and wildfire risk.

After this wildfire season, there is a consensus that more prescribed fire is needed to help reduce fuel loads and mitigate risks. However, with over 5.8 million acres of pine dominated forests, there is more fire needed than can be provided by the LDAF and contract prescribed burners.

Louisiana is a “right to burn” state, meaning that landowners have the right to burn their property. If landowners follow LDAF Prescribed Burning guidelines, they have “rebuttable presumption of non-negligence” under the law. To assist private landowners in following these guidelines, the LSU AgCenter and LDAF host Prescribed Burn Certification courses. As part of the certification process, participants must serve as a “burn boss” under a Certified Prescribed Burner on five prescribed burns.

As of 2021, approximately 40 percent of the individuals who completed the Certified Prescribed Burner program had not completed the certification process. I suspect many might not have the opportunity to complete five prescribed burns under a Certified Prescribed Burner. Lacking this critical experience, they choose wisely not to burn.

So ... how to get more fire on the ground?

One solution is the development of Prescribed Burn Associations (PBA) — an association of landowners and other concerned citizens formed to conduct prescribed burns. PBA members pool their knowledge, manpower and equipment to help other members conduct prescribed burns, making safe and effective burns possible.

For inexperienced landowners considering a prescribed burn on their property, PBA’s can be a game changer. The Southern Fire Exchange notes the four primary reasons landowners do not burn are:

1) Lack of experience or training. Attending prescribed burn training is no match for live fire experience.

2) Lack of assistance from knowledgeable individuals.

3) Lack of equipment. Prescribed fire can be more easily applied and managed with specialized fire equipment. These items can be quite expensive, and may only be used by an individual once every few years.

4) Liability concerns.

No two PBAs operate the same, but all PBAs address each of these issues. Experienced, certified prescribed burners mentor the inexperienced, providing knowledge and guidance and an ideal avenue for interested individuals to complete their burn certification process. With each PBA burn, the pool of experienced individuals to assist with burns increases. Many PBAs own or have members that own fire equipment they are willing to use on sanctioned burns. Each of these factors contribute to safer burns, which is an important step in addressing liability concerns.

Currently in Louisiana, we have two newly formed PBAs. The Piney Woods PBA in the north central parishes and the SWLA PBA in west central Louisiana. Developing additional PBAs within our state would provide myriad of benefits.

The concept of prescribed burning providing wildfire protection is understood by most. With increased use of prescribed fire other benefits may become noticeable, such as reduction of undesirable brush, improved aesthetics, fresh succulent regrowth and increased use by wildlife. These benefits may create interest in burning additional acreage. PBAs can help get more fire on the ground, alleviating wildfire danger and improving habitat. Neighbors helping neighbors for the benefit of all.

(Cecilia “CC” Richmond, Private Lands/Farm Bill Biologist, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.)


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