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Lesson 25

Professional Land Managers Setting the Longleaf Pine Forest on Fire



Student Information:

Similar to how your doctor writes you a prescription to take care of a cold, land managers write a prescription to help heal the land. For the longleaf pine forest, fire is the common cure for illness. Fire is to the longleaf pine forest like rain is to rainforest or tides are to salt marshes. Take away fire and the longleaf pine forest will die.


Teacher Information:

Historically, the longleaf pine ecosystem was maintained by frequent, yet low intensity fires, which burned every 3 to 10 years. Fires started by lightning, Native Americans, and (more recently) Euro-American settlers molded a longleaf pine forest comprised of fire tolerant plant and animal species. In this condition, the longleaf forest is considered a fire climax community.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, new land uses caused the forest to change. Logging, roads, and farm fields broke up the continuity of the natural forest which carried fire. By the mid-20th century people following the advice of Smokey Bear and began to actively put out fires.

Over time, the forest industry would come to understand the importance of fire in maintaining the longleaf pine ecosystem. For it is not a question if the south's forests will burn but a question of when they will burn. Through fire suppression, frequency of fire was being substituted for intensity, i.e., frequent, low-intensity fires versus infrequent, catastrophic wildfires.

Today, fires set by managers (called prescribed fires) are used in the longleaf pine forest as a low cost way to benefit certain wildlife and plants, increase scenery, assist in nutrient cycling, and reduce the threat of large destructive wildfires in the future. However, these fire managers are not merely going out into the woods and dropping a match.

A prescribed burn is so named because land managers first write a "prescription" of criteria that must be met before ANY burning can be done. The parameters of this prescription include weather, fuel types (e.g., live and dead vegetation) and amount, nearby manmade structures and topography. Land managers are systematically reintroducing fire into the landscape using carefully planned prescribed fires. Those individuals who do not follow this rigid protocol in using fire are called arsonists.

The silver hand-held "drip-torches" contain a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel. This mixture allows the burner to lay down a line of fire on the ground. The yellow shirts and green pants are standard issue Nomex (fire-retardant) clothing. Goggles safeguard eyes from flying ashes, plastic hard-hats protect the head from falling branches, and leather gloves and boots protect the hands and feet from heat. The small packs attached to the belt are heat resistant fire shelters. In the rare event that a person becomes trapped by flames, he/she would deploy their shelter climb inside and allow the fire to blow over the top of them.

The bottom left of the drawing shows part of a "fire break". A fire break is a plowed line around the area being burned. Plowing removes grasses, trees (i.e., fuel) that would otherwise allow the fire to continue to burn. The direction of the smoke indicates that the wind is pushing the flames. When a fire moves with the wind it is called a headfire. A fire pushing against the wind moves slowly and is called a backfire.


Key Words and Concepts:

Arsonist: Malicious individuals who purposely set fire to the woods without regard to its effects on human life or property. Usually done during the hottest, driest, windiest times of year to increase the level of damage caused by the fire.

Catastrophic Wildfire: A fire not set by prescription but instead set by Mother Nature. Usually these fires burn during the hottest, driest days of the year and can result in loss of habitat, human structure or life. Historically, most fires started by Mother Nature were not catastrophic in scope because fire as a regular natural process on the landscape and the fuels were kept in-check. Fires started becoming more catastrophic when man interrupted the fire regime through fire suppression and thus caused an un-natural build up of fuel.

Fire-Break: An area where all organic (burnable) material is scraped away by hand or with a machine. It can be used to keep a fire from moving either in or out of an area.

Fire-Climax community: A plant and animal community that is limited by and adapted to an early successional stage by frequent fire disturbances. Longleaf pine forests are considered fire climax.

Nutrient Cycling: The process of nutrient exchange. For instance, the decay of organic material and the return of nutrients to the soil in elemental form (like nitrogen, phosphorus, etc.). This elemental form is then taken up and incorporated by plants, perhaps eaten by animals, and returned to the soil as it is recycled again.

Prescribed fire: Fire set by trained personnel under specific weather conditions for a specific objective. Also called a controlled burn because the experts can somewhat predict what the fire will do.

Smokey Bear: A campaign initiated in 1944 to preach the importance of fire prevention in forests. An affectionate black bear called Smokey Bear was adopted as its mascot. The Smokey Bear campaign is the longest running public service campaign in US History. Smokey's forest fire prevention message remained unchanged for 50 years until April 2001, when the Ad Council updated its message to address the increasing number of wildfires in the nation's wildlands.


Suggested Activities:

  • Prescribed burning vs. wildfires – writing.

Correlations to Course of Study coming soon!

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