With years of experience under his belt, Bill Rivers looked to the rising smoke coming off the burning undergrowth at a longleaf pine forest in St. Tammany Parish and wasn’t pleased.
“It wobbled,” he said, referring to the winds on Jan. 30 that seemed to take the smoke one way and then another as his crew continued lighting the test burn.
As the leader of this fire team from The Nature Conservancy, it was his job to make the determination if the prescribed burn of this 80-acre longleaf pine forest parcel was going to move forward.
Instead, the crew burned a strip of land along the edge as a fire break between the main forest and an uninhabited trailer. They will wait for another day when weather will be more cooperative.
Unlike wildfires seen in the summer that rip through forests, endangering homes, businesses and leaving burned out wasteland behind, the fire The Nature Conservancy will set to this parcel will ensure the forest’s survival.
“This habitat evolved with constant fire,” said Latimore Smith, director of stewardship and senior restoration ecologist with The Nature Conservancy. Fire is as necessary to a healthy longleaf pine ecosystem as rain is to the rainforest.
“Without fire, we’ll lose these habitats and the many special species that depend on them,” Smith said.
“Historically, it’s a natural event,” said Rob Gosnell, director in the wildlife division at the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The department also does some burning for private landowners, primarily for wildlife enhancement.
“It’s a very inexpensive management tool,” he said. Federal grants through a variety of sources help landowners cover some of the cost.
The longleaf pine habitat is like a wet prairie with pine trees on it, Smith said. In order for this prairielike condition to remain, the longleaf pine and other species found in this ecosystem have adapted to frequent fires that help clear out undergrowth. In some cases, the fire is necessary for new growth to even occur.
For example, the longleaf pine comes out of the ground looking like a tightly wound tuft of grass that can be susceptible to a fungus called brown spot. The fire clears out this fungus, but the heart of this longleaf pine sapling is protected and will continue growing. The fire also clears out the hardwood trees or brush that might have started to block sunlight to the new longleaf pine trees and other species that call this habitat home.
One of those is a rare orchid that is found on the property The Nature Conservancy had hoped to control burn in late January.
“Without fire, it would not bloom,” Smith said.
Last year, in southeast Louisiana and south Mississippi, The Nature Conservancy burned 4,000 acres as part of its forest management program. The average size of a burn is about 200 acres, but even the smaller ones include a good bit of safety preparations, weather checking, team updates and awareness of developed land that sometimes comes within several hundred yards of the forest.
At the Lake Ramsay Savannah Wildlife Management Area, portions of the 1,300 acres owned in part by The Nature Conservancy and part by the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the developed land sometimes comes very close. Roads, homes and housing developments touch parts of the management area that still need to be burned.
Communication with local fire department, law enforcement and homeowners associations helps reduce concerns of people who might see smoke, Smith said. In St. Tammany Parish, where The Nature Conservancy does most of its burning, Smith said many people understand that the burning helps take away the underbrush that could fuel a wildfire.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t still concerns or phone calls, something that the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry also deals with when it conducts prescribed burn on properties.
“When the public sees smoke, they’re not seeing it’s a great day for a prescriptive burn,” said Wade Dubea, state forester with the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “They see fire as bad.”
Approximately 650,000 prescribed burns are done in the state every year from private contractors, state, federal or nonprofits like The Nature Conservancy, Dubea said.
“It’s one of the most economical and beneficial tools we have,” he said.
The department offers a service to burn private landowners’ pine forests for a fee, although that ability has shrunk over time due to budget cuts with the priorities being fighting the numerous wildfires in the state every year.
In 2008, Dubea said his budget was $24.5 million, but last year, it was down to $15 million.
“We have seen our ability to burn reduced. It’s not because the demand has fallen off,” he said.
Another potential limitation could come from federal air regulations, such as the proposed new ozone pollution standards, Smith said. It’s a catch-22, with some federal regulations setting out a need to protect endangered species that the burning allows and others like the ozone regulations with the potential to curb that burning.
For Smith, the question of longleaf pine forest survival already has an answer.
“We need to do more burning, not less,” Smith said.
Follow Amy Wold on Twitter, @awold10.