COLUMBIA — Land managers who use prescribed fire in South Carolina should pay especially close attention to fuel loads this year, according to a forester and wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The heavy rains that drenched the state last summer increased the growth of the grasses, leaves and other fine fuels that carry prescribed fires, according to Johnny Stowe, Heritage Preserve manager, forester and wildlife biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
This applies not only to “dead” fuels such as leaves and pine straw but also to evergreen vegetation such as the leaves of “pocosin” plants.
Pocosin is a collective term for evergreen and semi-evergreen shrubs, such as gallberry, many of which have leaves coated with wax that can burn extremely hot and flashy. Pocosin is found in blackwater wetlands in the Sandhills and Coastal Plain.
“As wet as the land was this summer, it dried out extremely quickly in many areas once the rains subsided,” Stowe said. “When this summer’s heavy rains tapered off, the abundant lush growth they had promoted caused surface waters in ditches and isolated freshwater wetlands to dry up quickly. So we may have a combination of unusually heavy fuels that are in some cases unusually dry and combustible.”
Land managers use prescribed fire to shape the landscape for wildlife habitat, to achieve forestry objectives, and to enhance public safety by reducing fuel loads.
The heavy growth on many sites this year can be used to land manager’s advantage in areas where fire has not burned continuously or intensely enough in past years.
But the heavy fuels can also make burning more challenging, increasing the risk of killing desirable vegetation, and in some cases, making it harder to contain the fire.
Land managers unfamiliar with implementing prescribed fire should consult a registered forester, certified wildlife biologist or experienced burner before conducting burns.
The impact of this summer’s rains will also be evident next fall in the needlecast of longleaf and other pines, since the needles that started growing this spring will be shed next fall.
For more information on prescribed burning, visit the S.C. Forestry Commission; the S.C. Prescribed Fire Council; or send an e-mail to Stowe at StoweJ@dnr.sc.gov.