Most forest fires in Tennessee occur during the early fall, late winter and early spring. Year in and year out March is the worst month for wildfires. Bright Sunshine, low humidity, windy days and the absence of green foliage combine to dry and heat the fuels on the forest floor to the point where fires can easily escape and cause damage to timber and property.
While some fires are deliberately set by arsonist, most of the fires in this area are caused by careless debris burning. Too many people think that a fire doesn’t hurt anything unless it burns a house, barn, or some piece of property such as a roll of hay. However, the damage done to standing timber when a fire passes through caused a loss of future income to landowners that is usually far greater than anyone realizes. Many people will grieve over the loss of a ramshackle old out building or an old outhouse that no one has used in forty years but never give a second thought to thousands of dollars of damage to a stand of young timber.
The amount of damage, of course, depends on the type and size of timber burned and the intensity of the flames as they pass through. Anytime the living layer of inner bark that lies just beneath the outer bark is heated enough to be killed, the tree is seriously damaged. The damage may not be readily apparent. Often it is three or four years before the damage can be accurately assessed.
The outer bark will slough off exposing dead wood that will leave the lower portion of the tree worthless and allow the introduction of fungi and bacteria that will cause the entire tree to become hollow and useless. This tree may live for decades, never to be worth anything and taking up space that could produce healthy young trees. The damage to a good stand of oak, yellow poplar or sugar maple could amount to thousands of dollars. The saddest part of this story is that this loss is usually inflicted on a person by his neighbor or by his own negligence. It only takes a little common sense to safely use fire.
Most fires escape control because of wind and the lack of proper preparation. Nearly everyone that will admit to letting a fire escape control says the same thing. “There wasn’t a bit of wind until I set the fire and then it got up.” They are probably telling the truth, but they shouldn’t have been so shocked since this same phenomenon has taken place nearly every day of their lives. The wind on an average day blows harder in the afternoon than at any other time of the day unless there is a cold front or some other weather system in the area. Therefore a fire set in the morning when the wind is calm has the potential to escape later in the day if it is left unattended. Before doing any open burning you are required by law to call the Tennessee Division of Forestry at 597-4015 to obtain a burning permit. They will advise you on the current and expected burning conditions and on how you can properly prepare for burning or if you should wait until a day with less wind and higher humidity.
Before doing any burning, always make sure that the area to be burned, or the dozer pile, or leaf pile or whatever is to be burned is completely surrounded by some kind of fire break. This could be plowed ground, a road, a stream or a line that has been raked clear of combustible fuels such as leaves and dry grass. It must completely surround the fire. A fence row or a narrow strip of dead grass could spread the fire to an area where hundreds of acres could burn. This should be done prior to setting the fire. Just as no one would think about buying a trailer load of cattle and turning them out with plans to build a fence around them, neither should you set a fire with plans to control it as it burns. Stay with your fire until it is out. If you leave your debris fire unattended and it gets out of control, it is not an accident, it is negligence and you can be held liable by adjacent landowners for any damage it does to their property.
Healthy, well managed and unburned timber means money in your pocket and a boost to the economy of Tennessee. Think before you burn.