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Posted: February 28, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Benefits of burning

What seems like a destructive force in nature actually replinshes the land

Photo courtesy of the Georgia Forestry Commission/

Blazing boulevard: Flames race through a tree-lined corridor on Mary Jane Dixon's property during a controlled burn in 2009

Mary Jane Dixon and her brother inherited hundreds of acres of forest land from their parents. Not really knowing what to do with all of the acreage, they decided to become timber farmers.

In 1987, they planted pines. Saw timber fetches the best prices, but farmers have to wait between 20 and 30 years for their trees to be prime market candidates.

The trees can't just be left to grow. Dixon, with the help of the Georgia Forestry Commission, must tend to the land to ensure she produces the best timber possible. As odd as it may sound to people who aren't farmers, part of farming requires starting regular controlled forest fires - prescribed burning.

The Georgia Forestry Commission Web site defines prescribed burning as "fire applied in a knowledgeable manner to forest fuels on a specific land area under selected weather conditions to accomplish predetermined, well-defined management objectives."

Early Native Americans burned pine stands to clear out the area for better access for animals and hunters. Upon seeing the replenishing benefits of fire, they began to annually burn their crop pastures as a method of fertilization.

"It's just the natural way of clearing out the land," Dixon said. "Nature takes its course."

Benefits
The benefits of prescribed burning are numerous. GFC Chief Ranger for Newton and Rockdale counties Mike Sapp said regular controlled burning actually reduces the risk of hazardous fires.

On Feb. 21 Sapp reviewed three fires - two in Newton and one in Rockdale. The one in Rockdale was around a home in a heavily wooded area, but since the homeowners had placed gravel around their home and kept the area around it well raked, the fire naturally went out once it neared the home.

"If you don't regularly burn, then all the limbs and leaves will build up year after year, and if a fire accidentally gets going, it has more fuel to keep it burning," Sapp said.

However, after the Rockdale fire stopped, wildlife almost immediately returned to the area.

"It's unbelievable," Sapp said. "By the time it was over and done with, the birds already came back because it exposed all the little seeds for them to find."

According to GFC Senior Community Forester Beryl Budd, all wildlife will profit from a burn-cleared tract since thick underbrush may prevent them from entering a feeding area. Cleared pine stands also allow landowners to enter their forests more easily to examine the health of their products.

Fires also remove invasive species and weeds that may deprive the primary product an owner is growing of nutrients. Also more sunlight and water can reach the ground in a pine stand, or a pasture that is primed for planting. Burned material acts as a natural fertilizer for crops as well.

"It'll come back twice as green as it did before," said Sapp.

Dixon said fire is also a good way to remove unwanted or harmful insects or plant diseases, such as the fungal infection "brownspot disease" or pests like the white pine cone beetle.

Preparation/Precautions
Dixon said the first thing to consider when burning a large acreage is a timber management plan. Whether the forestry commission or a private agency creates this plan doesn't matter she said, but it is an essential component of timber farming.

"My management plan gives me guidance and tells me what to do and when to do it," Dixon said.

For example, Dixon will not burn all of her acreage in the same year. Her plan tells her when to thin what areas and when to burn other areas. Sapp said typically you will thin a certain tract and then wait a year to burn it. Also, typically burns only help pine acreage as hardwoods will scorch.

Secondly, anyone who wants to burn - whether it is a small leaf pile or 500 acres - must obtain a permit from the forestry commission because certain weather conditions could make it dangerous to burn on a particular day.

Generally this time of year, mid-winter, presents the best time for prescribed burning, but this year very little has been done.

"You have to have the perfect weather conditions for a number of reasons, primarily to control the smoke," Budd said.

Foresters must consider humidity, wind direction and speed, temperature as well as recent rainfall before issuing a permit. The best conditions for burning generally occur after a cold front brings in a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch of rain because persistent winds, low humidities, cool temperatures and abundant sunshine can be expected.

Budd said winter is ideal for burning because temperatures rarely exceed 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Hotter atmospheric temperatures will cause hotter burn temperatures which may damage species that the landowner wishes to remain intact. Relative humidity of between 30 and 55 percent is desirable also.

While too much wind could cause a fire to become out of control, a little wind - between 3 and 5 mph - is good for prescribed burning, according to Sapp.

"We require some wind in order to push the fire in the direction we want it, and it needs to be a consistent wind," Sapp said.

Light wind also is necessary for smoke dissipation. Budd said cloud cover also affects smoke dissipation. Both Sapp and Budd said smoke causes more problems than anything else during a prescribed burn.

"Not only can it be a nuisance, but also it can cause a visibility problem on the highway, or if it settles on a developed area, it can cause problems for people with breathing problems like asthma," Budd said.

While heavy rainfall has prevented many landowners from burning this winter, in recent winters, a lack of rainfall prevented the GFC from issuing permits for burning.

Much like in California, where prescribed burning is not allowed, relative humidities were too low because of severe drought conditions.

Process
Once a forester has reviewed a landowner's timber management plan and issued a permit in favorable weather conditions, fire breaks (natural barriers to fire) must be established.

On Dixon's land her management plan called for the installation of several roads throughout the property not only for easier access but also to act as fire breaks.

If fire breaks are needed on a property to be burned, bulldozers or large plows are brought in (either by the forestry commission or a private company certified to conduct burns) to carve out furrows of bare dirt. Once the natural fuel on the forest floor -- pine needles and leaves -- burns out and the fire reaches the pure soil of the fire breaks, it will naturally extinguish.

Sapp said the forestry commission uses "drip torches" that allow the forester to release small droplets of ignited fuel. The weather then takes over from there.

"One man told me it's the prettiest thing he's ever seen," Dixon said. "They'll set the fire and you can watch it just dance across that field."

Accountability
Timber management plans and regular prescribed burns also help keep landowners responsible for tax breaks they receive as part of a statewide Conservation Use Assessment. According to the Newton County Tax Assessors' Web site favorable tax treatment is designed to protect property owners from being pressured by tax burden to convert their land from agricultural use to residential or commercial use. In return for the favorable tax treatment, property owners must keep their land undeveloped in a qualifying use for a period of 10 years or they will incur severe penalties.

Dixon said some landowners in the county want the same tax breaks she receives as part of the Conservation Use Assessment, but are not actively engaged in farming their land.

"In order to qualify [for the CUA], the county is requiring people, and I feel this is only right, that people have a plan that shows they are actively involved in some kind of agricultural use," Dixon said.

Timber management plans and records of burn applications help landowners who are involved in legitimate agricultural endeavors prove they are eligible for the tax exemption.

"A lot of people have the idea that we are getting some kind of a great big break, but we don't," Dixon said. "We pay taxes on every tree that's cut."

Impact
With forested land covering nearly 83 square miles of Newton County's 279 square miles, the timber industry is still alive and well locally.

According to the Georgia County Guide, Newton County was home to 199.7 million cubic feet of live trees in 2008. That same year the farm gate value (net value of a product when it leaves the farm, after subtracting market costs) of all timber and timber-related products was $547,859.

Not only is timber farming and all types of agriculture - the county was listed as having 306 farms in 2007 - an important piece of Newton County's economy, but it is essential to its future as well.

"Trees help clean the air and protect our water, and of course, forestry is an active practice that provides a product for landowners to benefit from and also creates jobs," said Budd

For more information about prescribed burning, visit http://gatrees.org or call the local GFC office at (770) 784-2480.


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