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Practice curtailed because of liability issues

Supporters say prescribed fires good for forestry, wildlife

JACKSON COUNTY — Travelers on Interstate 10 in late June got an unexpected and spectacular view of one of nature’s most powerful forces: fire. Huge, billowing columns of fire and smoke rose from the woods just north of the interstate with a southerly breeze keeping the smoke away from the highway.

The casual observer might have had little clue that this was actually a “controlled burn” conducted by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. TNC and the crane refuge cooperated to burn 3,700 acres of land during a five-day period between June 15-21.

Controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires, are conducted by TNC and the refuge for two primary purposes: One, they reduce the danger and possible damage from wildfires by reducing the amount of fuel. Two, the fire improves wildlife habitat. Larger, hotter fires such as these recent ones are classified as “restoration burns” that restore the original natural habitat of the land.

Controlled burns are also used by private landowners, including large timber companies, in order to enhance timber production while improving wildlife habitat.

Tony Wilder, fire management officer for the crane refuge, said they cooperated with TNC for the burn because it was the most economical and practical way of achieving their objectives. The properties share common boundary lines and management objectives. TNC’s Old Fort Bayou track of land is used as a wetlands mitigation bank.

TNC hired a contract fire crew from Wyoming to help with the burn while the crane refuge provided a helicopter. Wilder said the helicopter is used both to start fires quickly, and put out any fires that jump outside of the area to be burned. The helicopter also allows problems to be spotted early before they get out of control.

“The helicopter is an expensive item costing $750 to $1,200 per hour,” Wilder said. “So the more acres you can burn per hour, the cheaper per acre and the less you spend. That is good business. Even though we are a federal agency we try to use sound economical principles in fire management.”

Fires such as the ones used by TNC and the crane refuge are becoming less common in Mississippi on private lands even though they are good for wildlife and forest economics. The problem is that urban encroachment into forest areas has greatly increased costs.

“The cost of doing prescribed burning has probably increased tenfold in the past 10 years,” Wilder said. “It used to cost $2.50 to $5 per acre. Now it can be anywhere from $25 to $100 per acre. What raises cost are smoke management issues. You have to burn smaller blocks now because there are more houses and development. To burn blocks faster, you have to use a helicopter to start the fire. Then you have to mop up before nighttime.”

There are a number of private companies that specialize in prescribed burning including the crew from Wyoming that participated in the recent control burn in Jackson County. Wilder said there is a trend towards what used to be a strictly government function going more towards the private sector.

“The limiting factor with private fire practitioners is liability issues,” Wilder said.

Bill Baisden, forest operations manager for the south central region of the U.S. for International Paper (IP), says IP has reduced the amount of prescribed burns considerably in the past 10 years.

“Quite frankly, we don’t do a lot of that anymore,” Baisden said. “It used to be a major part of the industry. Invariably if you didn’t burn it, someone else would burn it for you. Arson fires in general have declined over the years.

“Burning is a natural way of enhancing wildlife habitat, so some wildlife people are protesting we aren’t doing it as much as we used to. But because of litigation from smoke and critics of smoke emissions, as well as internal cost, that business has gotten to be fairly expensive to do. We have reduced the acreage a lot. That is true throughout the Southeast, not just in Mississippi.”

Since there is a lot of frivolous litigation that causes concern, when IP can get by without burning, that’s what it does — even though that can come at considerable expense in terms of lower production yields. But Baisden said that is better than aggravating the wrong people and ending up with expensive litigation.

Mississippi has a prescribed fire act, which recognizes prescribed burning as a landowner right. Everyone has the right to burn land if they follow the regulations including having a certified burner present. Mississippi State University offers a week-long course to become a certified burner.

Regulations require that a written prescribed burning plan must be developed, and that the Mississippi Forestry Commission be notified. Burns are only allowed when the weather is conducive to good smoke dispersion so there isn’t smoke lingering on the highways or around homes and businesses.

Bill Lambert, chief of forest protection for the Mississippi Forestry Commission, said there has been more support for prescribed fires in the wake of the widespread wildfires in Florida in 1998. He said an entire town was saved from a wildfire in Florida because the fire burned into a track of woods that had been burned recently. That slowed the fire down and allowed it to be put out before it reached the town.

Lambert said prescribed fire is commonly used in Mississippi not only to reduce fuel in case of wildfires, but to reduce competition from scrubs and tree species that aren’t desired. Fire is also used to prepare sites for planting of pine seedlings. Prescribed fire is used in most of the state except in areas of the Delta and along major river drainages where hardwood trees are dominant. The same fire that is beneficial to long leaf pine trees can kill hardwoods.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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