Tom's Blog

Friday, December 13, 2013

Oak woodland: burn it or lose it?

The importance of prescribed fire for maintaining oak woodlands and oak forests is now so widely accepted in the forestry/fire ecology literature that it is no longer controversial. Probably the best up-to-date source of information on this topic is the Oak Woodlands and Forests Fire Consortium, an entity of the Joint Fire Science Program supported by the U.S. Forest Service. This Consortium presents monthly webinars which are openly available. Since they are archived, they are available at any time. Just go to the Oak Woodlands web site, choose  Activities, and then click on any webinar of interest. (The first time you will have to download a free application called Adobe Connect.)

On Dec 10 2013 the most recent webinar was held. This was presented by Dr. Gregory Nowacki, an ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, and titled: Oak, Fire and Mesophication: Past, current and future trends of oak in the eastern United States. This was an illustrated review of an important paper that Dr. Nowacki had published four years ago with Marc Abrams with the title: The Demise of Fire and “Mesophication” of Forests in the Eastern United States. Although I summarized this paper in a blog post in 2009, I recommend watching the whole Webinar, which is well illustrated and easy to follow.

One of the most important points of the Nowacki/Abrams paper was the striking decrease in use of fire in eastern U.S.forests since the 1950s. This is illustrated in the graph below, which comes from the original paper.

Area burned in the eastern United States
(1938–1990) based on historic fire records held at the US
Forest Service, Fire and AviationManagement,Washington
Office, and compiled by ReginaWinkler (R6 Information
Technology Specialist). Area includesMinnesota, Iowa,
Missouri, Arkansas, Lousiana, and all states eastward.

This marked decline in burning since World War II is striking. For some reason, the "culture" of woods burning apparently changed after the war. Now the goal is to change this culture back. Private landowners are strongly encouraged to burn their oak woods, at least every three years, if not more often.

At Pleasant Valley Conservancy we first burned our oak woodlands in 1999, followed by burns in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012. Although the first burn was rather spotty, it has improved with time and the 2012 burn was very good. The  plan is to continue burning at least every other year, either in spring or fall (depending on the weather).

The title of my blog post comes from a new brochure published by the Wildland Fire Laboratory at Humboldt State University (California). As it happens, California has lots of oak woodlands, mostly on private land. The brochure is intended to encourage landowners to burn. (I learned about this group because they used one of my oak woodland fire photos in the brochure.)


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