Clemson studies best seasons for controlled burns in Appalachians

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The Pinnacle Mountain fire burned more than 10,000 acres across Pickens County and scorched the upper reaches of Table Rock State Park. Photo by Will Crooks.

A group of Clemson University researchers is setting out to determine the best time for prescribed fire in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Don Hagan, a forest ecology professor, and a group of student researchers have received a grant from the Joint Fire Science Program to study prescribed burning during the growing season and dormant season to determine which is best for forest management. The study is being done in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northeast Georgia.

“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 in a press release.

Prescribed burning is a practice that involves removing understory brush that can go up in flames during a drought.

Last fall, drought caused more than 150,000 acres to burn throughout the Appalachians. In December, after months of firefights, South Carolina’s Forestry Commission announced fire crews had finally contained the Pinnacle Mountain fire, which burned more than 10,000 acres across Pickens County and scorched the upper reaches of Table Rock State Park.

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. Photo by Clemson University.

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.

Most prescribed burns occur in the dormant season in winter or spring. Growing season burns occur in the spring or summer. “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.” Hagan said.

He said the study could help land managers and researchers better understand the effects and behaviors of growing season burns, including fuel consumption, shrub mortality, oak regeneration, and herbaceous response.

Emily Oakman, a Clemson master’s degree student in forestry, is studying how prescribed burns during the growing season affect trees and other vegetation.

“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.”

Prescribed burns during the growing season may reduce the chances of a wildfire while also restoring the natural ecological processes that have been altered due to decades of fire prevention throughout the Appalachians, according to Oakman.

“Landowners also are concerned about oak productivity,” Oakman said. “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.”

The study, which also includes the University of Georgia and U.S. Forest Service, is expected to be completed in 2019.

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