For decades, Smokey the Bear implored, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” However, according to the MU Student Association for Fire Ecology (SAFE), his new slogan, “Only you can prevent wildfires!” is much more relevant to maintaining ecological health.
Members of the Mizzou SAFE chapter do start fires, but these are prescribed fires. Prescribed fire is the process of intentionally burning an area (a prairie, pasture, woodland, etc.) for ecological purposes.
“In pasture systems, prescribed fire is sometimes used to improve forage quality,” said Badger Johnson, president of SAFE. “In prairie systems they do a lot of patch burn grazing, it just makes the grass more nutritious. There’s a lot of restoration of short leaf pine, which used to be a dominant over story species in the Ozarks, and because of historic changes in land use it’s mostly oak hickory now, but burning is being used to help bring shortleaf pine back into the mix.”
In addition, many other species and ecosystems are considered “fire adapted,” and can thrive with regular burning. Prescribed burns can even be used to habitat for game species and visibility on hunting properties. Regular burning also prevents “fuel buildup,” a common problem in timber stands.
“For any fire prone area, it’s probably going to burn at some point one way or the other,” said Patrick Curtin, SAFE member. “With prescribed fire you actually have a say on when it happens, and you can pick a day that’s going to be better burn conditions and get a lower intensity or severity burn that’s less apt to turn into something bigger.”
But if it does turn into something bigger, SAFE members are trained not only in conducting prescribed burns, but also are federally certified to work on putting out wildfires, and following Smokey the Bear’s now more accurate slogan.
Prescribed fire is not a new practice, and there is evidence it was regularly performed by Native Americans before the colonists arrived. During the 20th century, there was a period of “fire suppression” that changed many ecosystems, in addition to the changes that came from colonists converting land to pastures and row crop fields.
“Fuels build up, which can be damaging to a timber stand, and after the Native Americans got killed or driven away, nobody was there to remember the benefits of burning on a regular basis,” said Johnson. “Fuel accumulated and then these valuable forests, which are a source of timber, were burned up in giant concentrations and they’ve taken sort of a command and control response to that [by not having any fires].”
Now, as a chapter of the National Student Association for Fire Ecology, these Mizzou students often volunteer on controlled burns at university research farms and area parks. Members also volunteer their time outside club activities to assist local land owners as they do burns on private property. Regardless of the client or location however, prescribed burns are not a simple process.
“You don’t just set fire to the ground,” said Amanda Wolfgeher. “Someone spent a lot of time deciding the area and making a safe barrier.”
Before a burn is conducted, there must be a “burn plan” that includes goals that should be accomplished with the burn, such as fuel reduction or killing some of the mid-story of trees, as well as a “prescription,” according to Mary Short, SAFE member and fire researcher. “Prescription” is the range of required weather conditions in which the risk of fire escaping or smoke causing a nuisance is low. “Prescription” includes factors such as relative humidity, barometric pressure, safety concerns specific to the location, and wind speed and direction. All volunteers working the burn are briefed on the burn plan before beginning. Before anything is set on fire, the perimeter of the area is cleared of flammable material, often using a leaf blower or rake. This helps the burn crew contain the fire to the prescribed area.
SAFE works with a number of groups on prescribed burns, as long as they have a good burn plan. They have worked with the Nature Conservancy, Missouri Department of Conservation, Rock Bridge State Park, MU Center for Agroforestry, Forestry Department, the Audubon Society and even various private land owners.
They are not allowed to burn in the Columbia city limits now, due to a burn ban against “open fires” (including prescribed fires) implemented in 2012, according to the Columbia Fire Department website. But SAFE members understand why the burn ban was implemented, and that many people are wary of prescribed fires.
“It’s been popular long enough that most people understand the benefits of fire,” said Molly Rooney, SAFE secretary. “[But] smoke is a nuisance for people who aren’t burning, and [we] understand why the burn ban is in place.”
Not only do these prescribed burns carry environmental benefits, they also impact the future careers of SAFE members, many of whom are conducting ecological research or pursuing careers in natural resource management. Participating in training sessions and burns with SAFE has given them the certifications and experience necessary for working with fire with federal agencies, and has allowed them to network with natural resource professionals in Missouri.