Stillwater News Press

Outdoors

February 19, 2014

A land made of fire

STILLWATER, Okla. — In the next few weeks, you are likely to see smoke plumes on the horizon. February and March is the time of year when many prescribed fires occur. People understandably get concerned when they see smoke. But it is important to remember the vast majority of fires in Oklahoma are set by prescription and are not wildfires.

If you notice a fire is out of control, is not being tended and is threatening human safety, you should report it. But don't assume every smoke plume you see is out of control; just the opposite is usually true. A prescribed fire is a deliberate fire set under specific guidelines to achieve an objective, and many landowners use fire to manage their land.

People have been using fire in Oklahoma as for as long as they have been present. Native Americans used fire for many reasons, including: Concentrating wildlife for hunting, protection against wildfire and for war against other tribes. Today, people in Oklahoma commonly use fire to improve forage for livestock, to reduce hazardous fuels such as Eastern red cedar, aesthetics and wildlife management.

Consequences of not burning in Oklahoma include loss of wildlife habitat (for some species), increase in wildlife risk, loss of forage potential for livestock, changes in pollen levels and types, changes in water runoff and stream flow and changes in aesthetics. One of the primary concerns regarding a decrease in prescribed fire is the increase in fuels around homes and the subsequent increase in wildfire risk.

As time passes after a fire, fuels such as Eastern red cedar increase. When an eventual wildfire takes place, typically under weather conditions that make the wildfire difficult to control, these heavy fuels put people’s homes and lives at risk. Therefore, periodic fire under safe conditions helps to keep fuel loads at levels that reduce risk to humans.

Livestock producers also use fire as a method to increase livestock performance. Grasses in Oklahoma are highly adapted to fire, and vigorously resprout after being burned. Producers realize cattle are readily attracted to these recently burned areas due to the new growth following fire, which is highly palatable, or desirable, to livestock. In fact, research shows protein levels in grass can increase four-fold following fire.

Fire suppression also has caused a decline of some wildlife species that require open grasslands. Examples include northern bobwhite, lesser prairie-chicken and greater prairie-chicken. As the plant community has changed from grassland to red cedar woodland, these species have disappeared over many areas of the state. Greater prairie-chickens were once common around the campus of Oklahoma State University, but so too was a treeless prairie.

While we should all be fire wise and vigilant about wildfire potential, remember fire has been used by man to make the state more favorable for hundreds of years. Without fire, our grasslands will disappear and so too will many species of plants and animals. Beyond that, part of our culture will disappear.

So the next time you see a plume of smoke, consider this sight has been seen by countless generations in Oklahoma and it is what has shaped our great state. If you'd like to learn more about prescribed fire, visit www.extension.org/prescribed_fire.

Dwayne Elmore is Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension wildlife specialist in the department of natural resource ecology and management.

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