Conditions have been right for three prescribed burns to be conducted on U.S. Forest Service land in Stone County this month, the latest involving a small tract around Blanchard Campground, and 243 acres near Optimus, both last week.
District Ranger Jim McCoy said last Thursday’s burn near Optimus, in particular, went “exactly as planned” and should achieve the objectives of clearing the cedar brush that had been cut so that the area can be reclaimed by native groundcover such as poverty oat grass and other cool season forages that had been choked out. The resulting habitat should benefit turkey, quail and other wildlife including the endangered Indiana bat.
“The ash will provide nutrients and I expect to see an explosion of herbaceous growth,” McCoy noted. The fire reached the correct temperature to kill smaller standing trees, which was expected, but leave larger and more hearty white oaks unscathed, he said.
“You can look out here and see that there is a white oak every 50 to 60 feet and that’s perfect,” McCoy said as he gestured to one section of the burn site. Also visible now are rock outcroppings that explain why the terrain is poorly suited for timber stands. Woodpeckers and other wildlife can now make use of the dead trees, he noted, most of which did not produce acorns and were not thriving in the choked conditions. It is also known that Indiana bats move into open woodlands after emerging from hibernation, roosting under loose tree bark on dead or dying trees. They feed on a variety of flying insects.
The Optimus burn site is in the third year of the habitat restoration project that is a collaborative effort of the Forest Service, Nature Conservancy and Arkansas Game & Fish.
The limestone and sandstone glades are common in what is known as karst topography – cave country – where the landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks. During a visit to the site about a year ago after the cedars were cut, McCoy explained that in the 1930s and 40s the glades were open. Use of controlled burning was reduced and grazing declined, allowing the cedars to take over, choking out the natural diversity. The Eastern Red Cedar and Ashe’s Juniper are native species, but their dominance is out of proportion.
While some prescribed burns are part of the habitat restoration project, the overall goal of prescribed burning is to reestablish fire’s natural role in the forest ecosystem, improve forest health, and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires. The Forest Service has announced plans to conduct prescribed burns in Arkansas and Oklahoma over the next several months.
Prescribed burns are conducted when the conditions indicate that there will be minimal impact to the public. Persons with smoke sensitivities, who are not on the Forest Service’s prescribed burn notification list, may call the District Ranger’s office at 269-3228 to be added to list.
According to information posted by the Forest Service, many conditions must be met before a prescribed fire can be ignited. The day chosen must be a combination of the correct humidity, wind speed and direction, temperature, fuel moisture, and atmospheric conditions. Factoring in all these requirements limits the number of days in which a prescribed fire can take place.
Photo and story by Lori Freeze in the Jan. 31, 2018 issue. In the photo, Forest Service personnel (from left) Bryant Galloway, John Terry and Kevin Smalls perform “mop up” duty Friday at the site of Thursday’s prescribed burn off Highway 5 North, wetting down hot spots that pose a risk of fire rekindling near the perimeter of the burn area.