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Wildfires are not unusual this time of year around a state rich in woodlands. We lose thousands of acres of forest annually to fire.

It doesn’t have to be.

That’s the message from Gov. Henry McMaster and South Carolina experts. The governor has proclaimed March 2019 Prescribed Fire Awareness Month in South Carolina.

A coalition of state, federal and non-governmental land-management organizations under the umbrella of the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council requested the proclamation to raise awareness of the essential role that fire plays in both the stewardship of our natural resources and the protection of lives and property.

Prescribed burns on the front burner

Prescribed, or controlled, burning is the skilled application of fire under planned weather and fuel conditions to achieve specific forest and land management objectives. Controlled burning is an ancient practice, notably used by Native Americans for crop management, insect and pest control, and hunting habitat improvement, among other purposes.

The practice continues today under the direction of land managers who understand the appropriate weather conditions, fuel loads and atmospheric conditions for conducting such burns. These carefully applied fires are an important tool to reduce wildfires, enhance wildlife habitat, and keep the nearly 13 million acres of forested land in South Carolina healthy and productive.

The fires also help restore and maintain vital habitat for wildlife, including bobwhite quail and other grassland birds, wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, gopher tortoises and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Beyond the many wildlife species that require fire-dependent habitat, many plants thrive only in regularly burned forests.

The demise of the longleaf pine forest and associated grasslands, which once made South Carolina one of the best quail-hunting states, is tightly correlated to the decrease in woods burning.

Prescribed fire enhances public safety by reducing or even eliminating fuel loads, thereby making wildfire on that area impossible or unlikely for some time afterward. And wildfires are usually less destructive on areas that have been prescribed burned. Wildfires often either lose intensity or go out when they reach areas that have been prescribed burned.

The message about prescribed fire as one of the best ways to keep Smokey Bear and his associates from being busy fighting catastrophic wildfires is an important one. Support and education are vital.

Fire is a key way to prevent wildfire losses

"Prescribed burning is not only the most effective, economical protection against wildfires because it reduces accumulated fuels," said McMaster in his proclamation, "but it is also a key tool in managing and maintaining the ecological integrity of South Carolina's woodlands, grasslands, agricultural areas and wildlife habitats."

Darryl Jones, SCFC forest protection chief, said about 500,000 acres are prescribed-burned every year in South Carolina -- most of them on private land -- but at least a million acres should be burned annually.

"There are so many benefits of prescribed burning," Jones said. "Not only does it reduce the severity of wildfires, but it also recycles nutrients, stimulates germination of desirable plants, improves wildlife habitat and protects the aesthetic value of our forestlands."

"There is not a better tool for land managers than prescribed fire to benefit wildlife or to help keep wildland-urban interface areas safe from wildfire. No other tool can replicate the beneficial results of a well executed prescribed fire," said Jason Hewett, chair of the South Carolina Prescribed Fire Council.

While prescribed burning cannot stop all wildfires, it is the best management tool available for preventing larger and more frequent outbreaks. As unusual as it may seem to the layman, preventing devastating wildfires amounts to fighting fire with fire.

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