It was March 2020. My wife and I had our flights booked for O’ahu, Hawaii’s third largest island, for our anniversary vacation. We had a free place to stay, so all we had to pay for were plane tickets and food. It was a pretty good deal. Needless to say, a little pandemic thwarted our plans. As I watch today’s news and see the wildfires destroying the beautiful landscape of the neighboring island of Maui, I can't help but wonder if the fires could have been prevented through proper land management and preparedness. I have been helping my Dad with fire management on my family’s land for years, and we know how important this management is because we have been in situations where we needed it. In this blog I will outline benefits, tips, and resources to prevent damaging wildfires, and how to use management techniques as a landowner. Full disclosure, I am not a certified burn manager, but I have a lot of hands-on experience in this area. Some of the information I’ll be sharing is purely anecdotal, however most of it is backed by research.
Why Fire Management
To be clear, the type of fire that landowners want to prevent is a wildfire. There is such a thing as beneficial and purposeful fires, but we will get to that later. Many landowners spend countless hours and hard earned money to improve their properties, so they want these investments of time and capital to be protected. For example, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES) says the average cost to site prep and plant loblolly pines is between $172.44 and $299.68 per acre depending on the circumstances. https://www.aces.edu/blog/topics/forestry/costs-trends-of-southern-forestry-practices-2020/
So, to prepare and plant 100 acres of pine trees you are looking at an initial investment of at least $17,000. These trees are most susceptible to fire in the first few years of growth and they usually do not have the protection of insurance, which means your investment can be completely wiped out. This is just one of the many valuable aspects of fire management.
What Can You Do To Prevent Wildfires
You probably read that heading in Smokey the Bear’s voice, at least I did when I wrote it. Anyway, there are some relatively simple things you can do on your property to help reduce the chance of an uncontrollable wildfire. Corteva Agriscience mentions three effective ways to help prevent these fires: thinning, fuel breaks, and prescribed burning.
I would argue that all three are needed and should be utilized by landowners. So what are these practices and how do you get started on your land?
When most landowners see the word “thinning”, they think of thinning pine trees in years 12-15 of growth to create room for the remaining trees to grow. While that is one aspect, for our purposes thinning means to reduce the number of less desirable trees and brush in order to control the height of the fire and prevent total loss. Believe me, once the fire gets to a certain height and gets into the crown of the trees it is significantly more difficult to control and sometimes impossible. I may or may not know from experience. You can DIY some of this by using a chainsaw, rotary cutter (bushhog), or forestry mulcher to take out smaller non-merchantable trees and shrubs if you have those resources available. If the time is right or you see the need, contact a local professional forester to set up a thinning of your timber. There are plenty of nuances when it comes to timber harvest, so make sure you hire a professional. We have a list of foresters and land management professionals we work with that are experienced, do quality work, and look out for your best interests.
Fuel & Fire Breaks
The USDA just invested $63 million in fuel breaks for a reason. Fuel and fire breaks are some of the simplest yet most effective ways to prevent and control a wildfire. A lot of people use fuel breaks and fire breaks interchangeably, but there is a big difference between the two. Fire breaks are much narrower (3-15 feet wide) than fuel breaks (180-300 feet wide). When you think of fire breaks, think of a dirt trail. It should be about two to three times as wide as the height of the nearest fuel, such as grass or bushes. When I create fire breaks, I simply use a disc harrow to plow up a boundary around the area I want to contain. If you have a 6-7 foot disc, one pass is enough for 3-3.5 feet tall fuel. If your fuel is taller you may want to make a second pass. Ideally, you want to eliminate any fuel completely and leave only dirt. Fuel breaks, in contrast, are a little more involved. The idea is to create a barrier by reducing fuel in a wider section. This helps slow down a hot fire that could jump a fire break, giving the landowner more time to control the fire. These methods are ideally used together, but your land and budget may not be conducive to both. One is definitely better than none.
Sometimes you have to fight fire…with fire. I would argue that prescribed burning is the single most effective thing you can do to prevent wildfires, as long as you know what you are doing. Please read this next sentence carefully. IF YOU HAVE NEVER DONE A CONTROLLED BURN PLEASE CONTACT A LOCAL FORESTER OR THE STATE FORESTRY DEPARTMENT TO DO IT FOR YOU AND GET TRAINED ON HOW TO BURN SAFELY. The Alabama Forestry Commission can perform an understory burn on your land for $20 per acre, with a minimum of $500. But why would you set fire to your land on purpose? Because it’s hard to burn things that have already been burned. Prescribed burning is the most efficient and cost effective method to reduce the fuel on the ground that can make hot fires even hotter and contribute to a wildfire. Weather conditions must be suitable to perform these burns to ensure they stay manageable. ACES has a great article that outlines ideal weather for burning, depending on your goals.
The wind, humidity, and temperature are all key factors in the success or disaster of a burn. Fire breaks are also a necessity when planning a burn. You should completely encapsulate your burn site in fire breaks to reduce the risk of a fire getting onto neighboring property. Proper manpower and equipment play a large role in reducing risk and increasing efficiency. Oklahoma State University outlines in detail the equipment needed for a successful burn.
Before trying your first burn, I would highly recommend attending a local burn demonstration put on by the state forestry commission or extension service. These demonstrations are put on by professionals with experience burning thousands of acres of land. They will teach you how to plan, prepare, and execute a successful burn. Always reach out to those agencies if you have questions or need help, and call us for a local contact in your area.