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Allowing forest fires in Ky woodlands - good or bad idea?
consulting forester forestry consultant
I have been noticing a disturbing trend in the last decade or so. More and more “experts” are questioning the value of controlling forest fires. It seems everyone has jumped on the bandwagon. The Forest Services, wildlife agencies, and others are now reconsidering whether Smokey Bear’s longstanding advice to “Prevent Forest Fires” is still gospel. Granted, a case can be made for using fire in managing pine stands of the southeast and western states. The bark of these trees is usually thicker and is not damaged by fire as easily as hardwoods. However no one seems to differentiate between fires in pines and hardwood stands. Although Kentucky does have some native pine stands throughout the state, make no mistake, Kentucky is a hardwood producing state – and thankfully so.
Let me explain what happens when a hardwood stand of timber is subject to fire, whether it’s a wildfire or a prescribed burn. When a tree is subject to a forest fire, the cambium layer just inside the bark is literally cooked and killed. This cambium layer is seldom killed completely around the circumference of the tree; rather the damage is usually isolated to the uphill side of the tree, where the flames are the hottest. For months following the fire, the bark will remain on the tree, and it will appear no real damage has been done. However, once the cambium layer has been killed, it’s just a matter of time until the bark falls off in that area. When this happen, insects and disease will start their attack on the exposed sapwood, and rot will begin. If it was a “hot” fire, with a lot of ground fuel present, the flames may kill the cambium layer well up the bole of the tree. With a “cooler” fire, the damage may extend only a few feet above ground level. Nevertheless, even these cool fires expose many trees to future rot and degrade.
Prescribed fires are often planned to produce these cool fires which are intended to kill unwanted herbaceous vegetation and understory trees. Factors such as wind velocity and direction, fuel moisture, and relative humidity must be just right to produce the desired results. Unfortunately, many of these fires get out of control, often by something as innocuous as a change in wind direction. Even successful prescribed burns, which do benefit certain wildlife species, almost always have a negative effect on future timber value.
In summary, let me repeat, that if you hope to grow a valuable crop of hardwood timber in Kentucky, keep fire out of your woods at all cost. If your timberland does happen to burn, when harvest time rolls around, timber buyers will very quickly let you know what they think of burnt timber by the size of the check they are willing to write.