Many of us assume that fire is bad for forests, and indeed, a stray match or untended campfire can leave devastation in their wake. But many forests actually need fire to clear the way for young trees and, in some cases, even to free their seeds and provide fertile ground for them to grow.
Indeed, few species are more dependent on fire than the Longleaf Pine, which in our area probably used to experience low-level fires at least once a decade, either from lightning strikes or set by Native Americans. Though a sturdy, long-lived tree, the pine grows slowly, especially in its early years, making it a weak competitor against the shrubs and vines that spring up in the forest’s understory. But it’s incredibly resistant to fire. As a bushy seedling, the longleaf pine can survive many burns; then, after spending several years looking like a clump of bright green grass, it rises high above the forest floor on a narrow trunk that takes it out of reach of the flames.
Once started, a wildfire clears the forest floor of built-up debris and unlocks the nutrients in fallen leaves and stumps so they can be returned to the soil. Fire also creates open areas where the sun can shine through, cuts back on undergrowth and provides space and sunlight for young trees to grow. It provides important food sources for animals as well. Insects have access to small flowering plants that sprout after fire. And these fresh shoots and the insects become meals for birds like the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) and Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo).
Fire can even provide homes for some animals, by leaving a network of underground tunnels when the roots of burned trees burn or rot away. Snakes and small animals then move in.
Because few fires have been allowed, the lowland canopy in Oak Mountain State Park has started to close and few Longleaf Pines, grasses and wildflowers have been able to get a foothold. On the upper slopes, the rocky terrain has made it harder for woody shrubs to move in and the pines still dominate. To preserve these woodlands, Alabama State Parks, the Alabama Forestry Commission and the fire department in nearby Pelham have started conducting prescribed burns – carefully planned fires done under close supervision – in the park.
– Scot Duncan