Soon, smoke will be in the air as South Carolina's foresters, farmers and other land managers begin a very busy part of their year. Traditional controlled burning season is fast approaching and is the time when the ancient tool of controlled fire - good fire - is put to use for the benefit of all South Carolinians.
Controlled burning, that is, igniting forest fires under controlled conditions, has many benefits, including reducing the risk of wildfire (bad fire), preparing land for planting, controlling diseases and undesirable plants and enhancing wildlife habitat.
Native Americans often used fire to create habitat for game and open up the woods. Lightning was setting fires long before their time and even today, so that fire in the woods is a completely natural phenomenon. These fires created forest landscapes and ecosystems that are dependent on fire for their continued existence. For example, natural longleaf pine forest ecosystems are heavily dependent on periodic fires to exist and maintain themselves.
Though fire is a natural and critical part of the environment, wild, unplanned conflagrations can do tremendous damage. But modern science allows us to safely apply fire in a controlled and positive manner. Today's forestry professionals know how to combine the right weather and forest fuel conditions with proper burning techniques to ensure the flames and their movement are controlled and capture the positive attributes of fire in the woods without the negative consequences of an uncontrolled wildfire.
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The S.C. Forestry Commission offers controlled burning and plowing firelines in preparation for burning as part of its many services to landowners. Highly qualified commission foresters bring the proper tools, equipment and knowledge to produce high-quality results. Most of them already have fought on the frontlines of many wildfires and therefore understand fire and its potential impacts. This perspective makes these men and women an ideal choice for conducting controlled burns. They each have a personal mission to improve our forests' productivity and reduce the risk of wildfire. Commission contact information can be found at www.trees.sc.gov or in just about any local telephone book.
Controlled burning is so ingrained in and important to our culture and history that it is even provided for in state law. The Prescribed Fire Act requires the preparation and use of a written fire plan, provides that prescribed fire is in the public interest and not a nuisance when conducted properly and makes it a property right.
The wildfire that tore through Horry County in April damaged or destroyed about 200 homes and produced around $50 million in damage. This fire was a painful reminder of the clear difference between good, controlled fire and bad fire from a wildfire - and of how aggressive and remorseless nature can be when left alone. We should learn from such fires that (1) high forest fuel loads in close proximity to homes can be a deadly mix, (2) controlled burning can substantially reduce fuel loading and potential for wildfire damage, and (3) adequate fire control staffing and proper equipment must be readily available to prevent catastrophic results.
Controlled burning is an extremely valuable tool that must be retained and used if we are to protect our forest timber, wildlife, recreation and natural beauty as well as protect the many people and homes that now exist inside our forests. To ignore this opportunity and the known difference between good and bad fire would be detrimental to our forests and increase the danger to lives and property from the wildfires that will inevitably occur in the future.