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Growing-season prescribed burns offer many benefits

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The summer months of June through September are often overlooked as months to conduct prescribed burns. Many land managers believe growing-season prescribed burns are ineffective because green vegetation will not burn. However, burns conducted during these months can be very beneficial for improving wildlife habitat, livestock forage and brush management. Prescribed burns conducted when herbaceous vegetation (grasses and forbs) is actively growing are called growing-season prescribed burns.

Like dormant-season burns, growing-season prescribed burns rely on last year's vegetative growth as fine fuel to conduct the burn. When ample dead fine fuel is present, green herbaceous vegetation will burn. This is why when planning a dormant- or growing-season prescribed burn, a land manager must leave adequate herbaceous vegetation in the planned burn unit. This means the area should only be grazed lightly, if at all, and haying or mowing should not be allowed during the previous growing season.

Another common belief is that a prescribed burn conducted this time of year will have a negative effect on the plant community. Many different plant communities across the country have evolved with fire, meaning the plants in these communities are well adapted to fire. This is especially true in many areas in the central, midwestern and southeastern states. Growing-season prescribed burns have many of the same benefits as dormant-season burns. These burns remove thatch (old dead vegetation), increase sunlight to the ground and stimulate new growth which is high in quality and very palatable for wildlife and livestock. Growing-season prescribed burns can be effective at controlling encroaching brush such as Eastern red-cedar, winged elm, honey locust, pecan, etc. Growing-season prescribed burns are less intense than dormant-season burns but typically are more effective for woody plant control. This is achieved by the longer length of time the fire is burning brush as well as higher cambium (growing tissue) temperatures caused by the increased air temperature when the burn is ignited.

Using growing-season prescribed burns can extend land managers' burn opportunities. When conducting prescribed burns, land managers are restricted to certain weather conditions, smoke management and labor needs. Adding several more months to burn will allow greater flexibility to land managers' burn schedules. All too often, many land managers, including myself, are not able to complete all the scheduled dormant-season burns, causing these burns to be pushed off to next year or being burned when conditions are safe but not favorable to achieve the objective of the burn.

The likelihood of spot fires and escapes is reduced due to the amount of green vegetation and higher relative humidity which are typically present during the growing season.

When conducting growing-season prescribed burns, remember to use good smoke management practices. Growing-season prescribed burns can produce more smoke than dormant-season burns due to the amount of moisture in the growing herbaceous vegetation. In addition, closely monitor the crew. These burns are being conducted during the hottest months of the year. Bring plenty of water, and allow for adequate rest periods.

Steven Smith serves as a wildlife and fisheries consultant at Noble Research Institute, where he has worked since 2006. He received a bachelor’s degree in wildlife and fisheries ecology and a master’s degree in rangeland management and ecology from Oklahoma State University. He grew up on small family cow/calf operation in central Oklahoma. His areas of interest are prescribed fire, especially growing season fires, and managing plant communities for livestock forage and wildlife habitat.