Prescribed Fires Restore Rare Habitats In Georgia

Every year, landowners in Georgia set hundreds of thousands of forest acres on fire on purpose to clear out underbrush and protect against wildfire. And increasingly, it’s for conservation.

One late spring day in April, flames crawl along the forest floor in the Dawson Forest, just outside of Dawsonville, Georgia, at the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Foothills. Firefighters plan to burn about 90 acres in the forest on a shady, wooded slope that goes down to Amicalola Creek.

Firefighters pour burning fuel onto the ground from drip torches, and then monitor the flames to make sure the fire stays where they want it.

The fire creeps in a long line that disappears into the distance and the smoke. The flames are just a few inches high. Sometimes they climb a dead tree or flare up on dry brush. Behind that narrow line of flames, the ground is all black.

“I get comments all the time, ‘Why in the world are you burning the woods?’” says Hal Massie, who is a botanist with the Department of Natural Resources and a firefighter. “Some people just seem to be dead set against it period because they think you’re out killing Bambi, but we’re actually improving habitat for Bambi.”

There are about a dozen firefighters here, including Massie. Many of them don’t do this full time; they’re ecologists or biologists, and this is a hands-on way for them to volunteer. They’ve all trained as wildland firefighters.

Even though the woods look charred and smoky now, they won’t for long, says Massie.

“You came back probably two months from now, you’d be amazed at what you saw, all the green,” he says. “And of course, the fire’s releasing all kinds of nutrients.”

The whole point of this is to bring back a better environment for a rare plant, called turkey beard.

DNR botanist Lisa Kruse is leading this burn, and she pointed out the turkey beard before setting the fire. It looks like big clumps of grass.

“In addition to the grassy bunch, they have a really tall stalk which is dried up right now, but that has flowers,” Kruse says. “That whole place where the flowers occur, the whole top is full of cream-colored, lily shaped flowers. So it’s a very charismatic plant.”

It’s also ─ like many other rare plants ─ really particular.

“We rare plant biologists have a term for it,” Kruse says. “We call these plants that are picky, we call them Goldilocks plants. Not too hot, not too cold. But just right.”

Turkey beard likes to live on the edges of cliffs over a river, preferably the north side. It wants just the right amount of moisture, not too much shade.

“Go figure,” Kruse says.

On this ridge, there are too many trees here now, says Kruse. It’s gotten too shady for these plants to thrive.

“These white pine and hardwoods, a lot of them are thought of having kind of have moved up slope a little bit without fire, and they’re out of place here,” she says. “So we’re trying to kill trees.”

To do that, the firefighters will try to make the fire burn hotter when it comes through this area.

The effects of the fire won’t just be good for the turkey beard, says Kruse.

“They go to the habitat, which in turn improves the situation for all kinds of wildlife, in addition to plants,” she says. “And it also encourages more biodiversity.”

Last year, the state of Georgia issued permits to burn more than a million acres on a mix of public and private land. The goals depend on the place: To reduce the risk of wildfire, to prepare land for planting or to improve hunting habitat, to name a few.

“Fire just doesn’t occur naturally here in Georgia like it used to because the land has been fairly well developed for agriculture,” Kruse says.

Fires caused by lightning used to be larger, Kruse says. And Native Americans used to set them, for similar reasons as land managers do now.

We’re getting past the Smokey Bear era of preventing forest fires at all costs. Though fires have been more common in the southern part of the state, Kruse says they’re just starting to come back to the Georgia mountains.  

Many places in Georgia should be burning between once a year, and once every five years, says Eric Brown, manager of the fire program for the Nature Conservancy in Georgia. He’s one of the firefighters on this burn.

“There really isn’t much of the U.S. that didn’t naturally burn at some point,” Brown says. “And so we consider fire to be a natural process that should occur, and without that we’re losing species.”

The DNR is emphasizing fire more for habitat restoration. The agency burned three times as many acres last year as it did a decade ago.

But bringing fire back isn’t easy.

If the forest is too overgrown, the flames could rage out of control. Also, it can take years to get a place back to what it may have looked like when it had regular fire, and then you have to continue setting fires to keep it that way.