The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission conducts prescribed fires on its game lands to help restore and maintain wildlife habitat. A prescribed fire is an intentional burning of vegetation conducted under strict and specific circumstances. It is a cost-effective tool that NCWRC staff use to create and maintain suitable and ample wildlife habitat in old fields, native grasslands and open-canopy woodlands on game lands throughout the state. NCWRC wildlife foresters, technicians and biologists conduct the majority of prescribed fires, also called controlled burns, between January and March when trees are less active metabolically. But they continue some fires into spring and summer because warm season burning provides for better control of young hardwoods, which will re-sprout from the base if repeated fires are not conducted.
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Prescribe fires encourage production of native grasses and herbaceous vegetation, which provides valuable food and cover for a wide variety of wildlife species. Animals like deer browse on groundcover. Quail and songbirds utilize seed produced by native plants. Quail as well as other species, such as turkeys and rabbits, use the groundcover for nesting.
In fact, many of North Carolina’s declining or rare wildlife species are adapted to and found only in fire-dependent habitat, which underscores the need for the NCWRC to continue its prescribed fires program across the state.
Red-cockaded woodpeckers, Bachman’s sparrows, golden-winged warblers, painted buntings, timber rattlesnakes, northern pine snakes and gopher frogs are just a few animals that benefit from the early successional habitat created from a prescribed fire. Each of these animals is listed as an endangered or threatened species or a species of special concern in North Carolina because of declining populations.
Early successional habitats typically have open understories with a mix of grasses, legumes, wildflowers, vines, shrubs and saplings, all of which provide excellent food and cover for many species of wildlife. After the NCWRC burns an area, regeneration of grasses, small shrubs, and other vegetation occurs within a few weeks, and animals return to the burn site shortly after.
In addition to using prescribed fires to create valuable wildlife habitat, Commission staff uses prescribed fires to help reduce high levels of forest fuels that can cause deadly wildfires and to control disease and insects, such as brownspot disease in long leaf pine seedlings and cone beetles in white pines.
To an untrained eye, the land after a prescribed fire can look bleak — a smoldering, bare landscape in which no animal could have survived. That misperception, however, can’t be further from the truth.
A lot of times when the NCWRC conducts a prescribed fire, the agency gets calls from people who are concerned about animals not being able to escape the fire, particularly during turkey hunting season in the spring. However, the agency uses burning techniques, such as flanking fires and slower-moving backing fires, to ensure that animals have time and room to escape.
Because wildlife have evolved over the centuries with fire, they’ve learned how to avoid and escape fire. Most animals leave the area of the fire and in the case of many reptiles and amphibians, burrow in the ground until the fire is out.
The overall benefit that wildlife receives from a prescribed burn far outweighs the small amount of wildlife that is lost.
The NC Forest Service is an excellent resource for private landowners interested in using prescribed fire to manage their land. The NC Resource Conservation & Development hosts programs around the state to promote the use of fire for conservation and to mitigate wildfire risks to homeowners.
Prescribed Fire: What North Carolina Citizens Need to Know
Using Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat | NC State Extension Publications (ncsu.edu)
Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Prescribed Fire Resolution