Fighting fire with fire: Controlled burns reduce wildfire risk, improve wildlife habitat

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Click the play button to see a prescribed burn in Wilson County.
Drew C. Wilson | Times

As Ranger Dillon Howard laid a strip of burning fuel through the forest, it was only seconds before the path where he had just walked was ablaze.

Dry underbrush quickly ignited upon the introduction of fire under the canopy of a pine plantation off Bakertown Road east of Wilson.

Friday’s fire is one of a handful of prescribed burns that will be undertaken this month.

“Weather permitting, we have two more prescribed burns planned for later this week,” said Brandon Webb, county ranger for District 5 — which includes Wilson County — for the North Carolina Forest Service.

Forest landowners use burning as a management tool.

The No,. 1 benefit of a controlled burn is to reduce the risk of wildfire.

“We are removing the vegetation that could burn,” Webb said. “Second of all is the benefit it is for wildlife.”

Mike Mercer of Wilson, owner of a 68-acre tract of pine trees, said Friday’s burn was confined to 19 acres of the tract.

“It was planted for wildlife back in 2002,” Mercer said. “What we are going to do is try to get the competition out and let the grasses come up for animal habitat and just try to clean it up a little bit.”

The property was farmland until 2000 and trees were planted in 2002.

Burning the acreage will eliminate many of the sweet gum, poplar, red maple and cedar trees that have grown in between the pines.

“Those are the ones that you are really out to kill as many as possible,” Webb said. “We want to remove the litter layer and expose some soil. That, in return, is going to allow some usable vegetation to come in, your smaller plants that your wildlife can use. Right now, none of your small vegetation can grow due to the ground litter.”

Burning off pine straw, fallen leaves and small brush will permit native grasses and other desired plants for wildlife to grow.

“Right now, if your rabbit is crawling around here, he’s not going to have a lot to eat,” Webb said. “Your birds don’t have a lot of cover, so that is what you are trying to promote.”

According to Mercer, the controlled burn will release nutrients into the soil and stimulate growth.

“A lot of people say that burning this is some of the best fertilizer because you put so many nutrients back into the earth,” Mercer said.

The end result will be a favorable habitat for deer, turkey, quail, rabbits, dove and other animals.

“They are very pretty to look at,” Mercer said.

“When you are doing a burn, you are providing a year-round cover and forage for animals other than the small food plot,” Webb said. “You have got a year-round area for them for forage and for cover.”

Ideally, the controlled burn will reduce by up to about 70 percent the brush that is keeping needed light from reaching the ground for new growth.

Each year there is only a small window when conditions are favorable for controlled burns, and that window is closing.

“Usually that’s when we have higher winds and lower humidities, which are two ingredients to a wildfire. Getting into late March, our fire season starts, so we don’t do as much controlled burning because we are on standby waiting for wildfires,” Webb said.