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Good Fire How DWR Uses Fire to Restore the Wild

A History of DWR and Prescribed Fire

There’s a long history of wildfire as part of the ecology in Virginia from the Appalachian Mountains to the pine forests of the coastal plain. There’s also ample evidence that Native Americans and colonial settlers alike conducted controlled burns of certain areas for many reasons—from attracting wildlife to an area to clearing land for crops or establishment of home sites.

But in the early 20th century, catastrophic wildfires took their toll throughout the United States and as a result attitudes toward fire in the forests and fields shifted. “As populations grew and people were building homes in wooded settings, it brought the necessity to control or eliminate fire as much as possible,” said Kent Burtner, forester with DWR. “That did change the natural ecosystem that existed prior to the prevention of fire. We excluded fire from the woods for several generations.” The exclusion of fire in these fields and forests brought about significant changes to the structure and even species compositions of many areas resulting in changes to wildlife occurrence and usage.

DWR’s Big Woods Wildlife Management Area is a stellar example of how prescribed fire can dramatically improve habitat for wildlife.

Over the last few decades, DWR and other conservation-focused agencies and organizations have been working to restore fire’s role in the landscape as an essential tool for habitat management through the application of prescribed fire, or controlled burns. DWR’s Big Woods Wildlife Management Area is a stellar example of how prescribed fire can dramatically improve habitat for wildlife. DWR Lands and Access staff, The Nature Conservancy Staff and other partners strategically applied prescribed fire at Big Woods WMA and the neighboring Piney Grove Preserve to create habitat friendly for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which relies on the open forest structure that repeated fire generates. In 2019, a breeding pair of red-cockaded woodpeckers took up residence at Big Woods WMA. “That has happened purely through habitat management that’s forestry- and fire-related,” said Burtner. “It’s incredible the success of what’s going on—on our property and at The Nature Conservancy’s property next door, Piney Grove Preserve.”

DWR’s prescribed fire program is made up of agency employees with a variety of expertise, from lands and access staff to fisheries biologists and from boating access maintenance technicians to Conservation Police Officers. Learn How Teamwork Makes Fire Work »

When Burtner started burning with DWR in 1982, the agency’s focus for prescribed burning was on open fields in the Piedmont and as site preparation for planting pine trees. “I’d say what has really changed in the last 10 years or so is an increase in understory burning in both pine and hardwood forested settings,” said Burtner. In addition, there’s been a substantial increase in the formal training of prescribed fire crews.

And DWR isn’t going it alone in their prescribed fire program. There’s an extensive network of partnerships with other government agencies and environmental organizations. “Now everyone’s working together,” Burtner said. DWR works with Virginia Department of Forestry (DOF), Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and The Nature Conservancy. The burn crews from the different partners frequently pool resources for prescribed burns of larger acreage, working as a team. They also share knowledge and training among the partners.

DWR’s prescribed fire program is made up of agency employees with a variety of expertise, from lands and access staff to fisheries biologists and from boating access maintenance technicians to Conservation Police Officers. They all train for and conduct prescribed burns in addition to their usual duties all for the betterment of OUR wildlife resources.

Good Fire How DWR Uses Prescribed Fire to Restore the Wild

We’ve been conditioned to think of fire as solely a destructive force, but for wildlife, forests, and meadows, fire can also be restorative and a force for good. Prescribed fire is #GoodFire.

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