Tom's Blog

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Is prescribed fire in oak woods a disturbance?

I've been spending a lot of time reading the literature on the role/use of prescribed fire in oak savannas and woodlands. The consensus among forest ecologists seems to be that fire is essential if oak forests are going to have any long-term future. This idea seems to be widely accepted. It is based to some extent on research studies and to a great extent on numerous observations by foresters and plant ecologists.

The point of this post is that many people who write about this topic call prescribed fire a "disturbance." Here is a sentence one often sees: Oak forests require periodic fire disturbances if they are to regenerate and be conserved.

The word "disturbance" in this context is pejorative, implying something bad. I am concerned about using it because it may be misinterpreted by the general public. Those of us involved in prescribed burns know that a large number of people think burns are harmful. Suggesting that fire in a forest is a disturbance suggests some sort of harm. Not so.

Oaks evolved in a fire-prone environment and without fire might not survive as a species. Fire is not a disturbance to oaks but is in fact a beneficial (healing) force. This is especially true for fire in the dormant season.

Instead of "disturbance" I suggest the word "renewal" be used. Thus, "oak forests require fire as a periodic renewal agent to regenerate and be conserved."

Maybe this is a minor issue, but prescribed burners need to convince the general public that what they are doing is important, perhaps even essential, if such an important species as oak is to survive.

Oak woodland after being "renewed" by a prescribed burn.


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