Has fire frequency changed in the United States over time?

For most of the United States, current fire frequencies are longer than what historically occurred prior to European settlement. In part, this can be attributed to fire suppression and exclusion efforts. This is particularly true for the eastern 2/3 of the nation. There are some areas of the western United States that are experiencing more frequent fire due to exotic annual grass invasion. For further information about specific areas of the country visit http://www.landfire.gov/.

How often should I burn my fields?

When managing fields or openings for wildlife that use herbaceous openings, burn frequently enough to prevent plant succession and not allow woody species to dominate the area. This may be every 1-3 years. However, many wildlife species use woody or brushy cover. When managing for these species, the fire-return interval will be longer to maintain desirable woody plant composition and structure. Burning every 4-7 years in the eastern US with low to moderate fire intensity will usually maintain a woodland mosaic with scattered trees, shrubs, brambles, and a herbaceous understory. These intervals are recommended if annual precipitation is greater than 30 inches. In more arid regions, the interval will be longer. For more general information, see “How often should I conduct a prescribed fire?”

Effects of Timing of Fire and Fire Intensity

Fire frequency (or fire-return interval) is the most important factor with regard to how prescribed fire influences vegetation composition and structure. Fire intensity and season of fire are two other factors that can also influence plant communities and thus wildlife communities.

Plant Succession

Managing plant succession is one of the main reasons managers use prescribed fire. Plant succession is the orderly process of plant communities changing following some disturbance event, such as fire, that leads to some final stage that is relatively stable until another disturbance event occurs. Whether our objective is to manage land for a particular wildlife species, ecological restoration, or increased forage for livestock, we use fire to influence the plant community. Fire can be used to set back succession or maintain a particular successional stage, and the effect of fire is influenced by how we use it. In general, and to a certain point, the hotter the fire, the greater the chance of killing vegetation. Most woody plants are killed when the cambium layer (the inner bark) reaches approximately 145⁰ F. Of course, all fires are hotter than 145⁰ F. However, tree bark is a good insulator and protects woody plants from many elements, including fire. Chances of raising the temperature of the cambium layer to a lethal temperature are increased with a hotter fire or by slowing the spread of fire (a longer residence time). It is important to understand that many woody stems may only be top-killed when the cambium reaches 145⁰ F. That is, the roots of the plant may continue to survive and the plant will sprout from the roots.

Fire Intensity

Fire intensity is influenced by environmental conditions, such as fuel load (amount of leaf and grass litter), litter moisture, litter size, air temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed, as well as the firing technique used. Fire intensity can be controlled by burning within certain environmental parameters and by using certain firing techniques. Within a given set of environmental conditions, headfires are hotter than backfires (headfires move with the wind and backfires move against the wind). However, the residence time of a backfire is considerably longer than that of a headfire. Thus, it is possible for a slower moving and less intense backfire to heat the cambium layer of a small tree or shrub to a higher temperature than a hotter and faster moving headfire. It is also generally safer to use a backfire than a headfire becasue a backfire is slower and typically has shorter flame lengths. Nonetheless, a relatively hot headfire is normally required to kill relatively large (>4 inches ground diameter) woody stems because the bark is thicker on larger trees and more resistant to relatively cool backfires.

Fire Seasonality

Across most of the US, fire may occur in any season. Although late winter is when most people implement prescribed fire, considering other times of the year will not only extend opportunities for burning, it could also influence plant composition and help meet land management objectives. In general, research has shown that within a given fire-return interval, burning during the growing season (especially the late growing season) tends to kill woody species and decrease woody composition more than burning during the dormant season.

It is interesting how fire intensity may be greater, on average, when burning during the dormant season than during the growing season, but the effect in killing woody species is greater when burning during the growing season. Fuels tend to be drier and burn hotter during the dormant season than the growing season (the exception being during summer drought conditions). However, greater fuel moisture content during the growing season also means a longer residence time. Thus, timing of fire and fire intensity can be related.

It should be clear that fire frequency has a greater influence on plant composition and structure than timing of fire. However, prescribed fire does not have to be implemented during the dormant season. Consider burning during other seasons of the year and adjust fire intensity to help meet land management objectives.

What is a fire regime?

Fire regime is a term used to characterize the frequency, extent, intensity, severity and seasonality of fires within an ecosystem over an extended period of time.  For example, historically, ponderosa pine forests in the Southwest were generally characterized by a high frequency (2-12 years), low intensity, and low severity spring & summer fire regime.

How often should I conduct a prescribed fire?

Prescribed fire frequency is determined according to land management objectives and post-fire evaluations. Accordingly, one size or frequency does not fit all. For example, adjacent landowners may have similar properties but different management objectives that require different burn frequencies. Regardless of the objectives, post-fire evaluations and in some cases monitoring is required to determine when or if another prescribed burn is necessary. Some objectives may be evaluated immediately following fire, such as the reduction of dead and down fuels, while others may require multiple growing seasons or fires to determine, such as change in hardwood cover. Contact your local Cooperative Extension agent to discuss prescribed fire management objectives, burn frequency, and monitoring techniques suitable for your specific region.