SOCIAL CIRCLE — Visitors at many of Georgia’s state parks, wildlife-management areas and natural areas this winter are in for a treat: an up-close glimpse of habitat restoration in progress as trained "firelighters" set controlled, prescribed fires to the forest understory.
These dormant-season burns, taking place outside most plants’ active growing season, improve habitats for dozens of native plant and animal species by opening up overgrown areas of the forest floor. The fires also reduce fuel loads that could spark costly and dangerous wildfires.
One major species that benefits from prescribed fire is the longleaf pine, a stately tree that once blanketed the American Southeast but is now found in a fraction of its historic territory.
A healthy longleaf pine forest can play host to an amazing diversity of native animal species, including some that have been threatened in recent years, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker, gopher tortoise and eastern indigo snake.
Conservation is on the minds of the firelighters themselves.
Each prescribed burn is ignited and monitored by a crew consisting of park staff, volunteers and state and federal environmental employees.
The core is the Interagency Burn Team, which includes agencies and organizations such as the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Georgia Forestry Commission, plus a seasonal prescribed-fire strike team.
The strike team is assembled and trained by the DNR’s Nongame Conservation Section. This marks the third year DNR has hired a crew for prescribed fire, and the 2011 crew is double the size of last year’s.
Last year proved a banner year for this eco-burning team, which helped with prescribed burns on more than 25,660 acres. Goals for this year include more than 20,000 acres, weather willing.
The strike team mixes veterans and newcomers. Members hail from six states and bring to the table varied experiences in environmental and conservation work, ranging from organic farming to trail construction, exotic plant removal to environmental education.
Three of the crew members are interns with the Student Conservation Association, an organization that matches applicants with environmental positions in parks and natural areas across the United States. The other three members were SCA interns on the 2010 crew and now are seasonal DNR employees.
One thing unites the crew: a keen interest in watching fire refresh and restore biodiversity to a fire-suppressed landscape. The signing earlier this month of a prescribed fire proclamation by Gov. Nathan Deal supports this sentiment.
The signing kicked off Prescribed Fire Awareness Week, which recognizes prescribed fire as a safe way to apply a natural process that is healthy for wildlife and people.
Prescribed fire helps maintain Georgia’s diverse wildlife and safeguard property and air quality by reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
At the end of a successful prescribed fire, a burned area consists of fire-blackened ground, often devoid of living vegetation, dotted only with stubs of scorched plants and patches of toasted pine straw.
To the unsuspecting passerby, the area often looks like a wasteland that might never grow anything again.
"I can understand why they would see that, because on the surface, everything’s black," said seasoned firelighter and DNR crew leader Shan Cammack.
"But I would invite them to come back in a month or two, to see the life that comes back after a fire, more diverse and vibrant than before."
Prescribed fire as a habitat-management tool is emphasized in Georgia’s Wildlife Action Plan, a comprehensive strategy that guides DNR efforts to conserve biological diversity.
The agency’s use of fire to manage habitats and meet Wildlife Action Plan goals also includes traditional game-management practices.
DNR’s game management section burned an additional 32,845 acres on wildlife management areas last year.
Game management is responsible for land management efforts on Wildlife Resources Division state-owned properties.
"The use of fire to help manage wildlife, especially game species, has a history predating European colonization," said Mark Whitney, game management section chief.
"The department has employed this highly beneficial practice since the department’s inception."