CLEMSON — Prescribed fires are beneficial for forests, but a group of Clemson researchers is wondering just when these fires should be used in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Emily Oakman, a first year master's student in the Clemson forestry program, is studying how to provide information related to prescribed burning to produce desired effects

Emily Oakman, a Clemson master’s degree student in forestry, is studying how to provide information related to prescribed burning to produce desired effects in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The team has received a grant from the Joint Fire Science Program to study prescribed burning in the Appalachians. Don Hagan, a Clemson University assistant professor of forest ecology, some of his students and other researchers are studying two types of fires – growing season and dormant season fires – to determine which is best for forest management in the mountain region.

“Growing season fires are not extensively used in the Appalachian Mountains,” Hagan said. “Land managers in the southern Appalachians have expressed interest in expanding their burning programs to include growing season fires, but information is limited on how to effectively do so.”

The Consortium of Appalachian Fire Managers and Scientists, a knowledge exchange network supported by the Joint Fire Science Program, has identified burn seasonality as one of their highest priority research areas.

Prescribed burning is a practice that involves using fire to control pest insects and diseases, provide forage, improve habitats for wildlife and put nutrients back into the soil, as well as to promote the growth of trees, wildflowers and other plants. Prescribed burning also reduces hazardous fuel accumulations, thereby helping to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires later. Most prescribed burning is done during the dormant season, in late winter or early spring. Growing season burns, as the name suggests, are conducted in the late spring and summer.

Thomas Joseph, a Clemson master's degree student in forestry from Columbia, is helping determine when prescribed burning should be done in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Thomas Joseph, a master’s degree student in forestry from Columbia, is helping determine when prescribed burning should be done in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Dormant season burns, while effective at reducing fuel accumulations, are often not effective at achieving vegetation-related management goals, Hagan said.

The study is being done in the Chattooga Ranger District of the Chattahoochee National Forest in northeast Georgia. Hagan said it will help researchers and land managers better understand the behaviors and effects of growing season burns, particularly with respect to fuel consumption, shrub mortality, oak regeneration and herbaceous response.

“Knowledge gained from this study will give land managers the ability to more effectively plan and achieve annual burning goals, while enhancing their ability to meet fire and restoration-related management objectives,” Hagan said.

Emily Oakman is a first-year master’s student in forestry from Slidell, Louisiana, who is studying the effects of fire season on vegetation mortality in the forest.

“I am interested in how fire intensity and severity vary between seasons and how this influences the mortality of species such as oaks, pines and maples,” Oakman said. “Because oaks and certain pine species are considered desirable — and maples generally are not — this will provide information about how to burn to produce the desired effects.”

Trey Trickett, a Clemson master's degree student in forestry from Moore, helps conduct a study to determine when prescribed burning should be used in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Trey Trickett, a master’s student in forestry from Moore, helps conduct a study to determine how effective growing season burning is in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Image Credit: Clemson University

This area of the southern Appalachians has not been burned for decades, she said. Because of this, the area is undergoing structural changes that may affect humans, plants and wildlife.

“With the amount of fuel loading and the close proximity of homeowners to the forest, wildfire risk is a major concern,” Oakman said. “Landowners also are concerned about oak productivity and the implications for wildlife. The long period of fire suppression has hindered the establishment of oaks, which are desirable for many wildlife species. Fire suppression also results in the loss of herbaceous understory vegetation, resulting in a decline in habitat quality.”

Growing season burning may be an effective way to reduce wildfire risk while restoring natural ecological processes and species diversity in these forests, she added.

“The biological diversity of these forests is among the highest in the world,” Oakman said. “I hope that my research will help managers in their efforts to sustain this incredible diversity.”

In addition to Hagan, Oakman and other Clemson students, others working on the study include Joseph McHugh from the University of Georgia, Michael Ulyshen from the U.S. Forest Service and Ryan Peacock from the Chattooga Ranger District. The study is expected to be completed in the summer of 2019.

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The Joint Fire Science Program funded this project under Grant No. L16AC00192. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government.