Archive Contents

Are You Fired Up About Wildlife?

Do a Prescribed Burn

By John Howle


At age 13, I conducted a prescribed burn with the help of my 13-year-old cousin, Edward, even though no one prescribed it. We thought it would be a great idea to clean dead briars off the pasture fence with fire. The wind picked up, and within 20 minutes, we had burned about two acres of dry pasture grass before we could beat out the flames with pine tops. There was no hiding that large patch of black ground, and we got in big trouble.

The following spring, the grass grew better in the burned area than any other part of the pasture. It was then I realized the beneficial effects of burning. A prescribed burn is not to be confused with a wildfire. It is simply a controlled, low intensity fire burning dead leaves and grass on the forest floor or in open fields stimulating the growth of native plants.

A landowner and a forester looking at an aerial map of the burn property.

Burning Benefits for Wildlife

• Prescribed burning allows seeds locked in layers of dead matter a chance to make soil contact and germinate. Legumes, grasses and other forbs high in protein, calcium and phosphorous will appear in the spring green-up, and this forage is a holding environment for insects providing turkey poults and quail chicks protein.

• Deer, turkey, quail and a multitude of other wildlife need open areas for traveling to bedding, foraging, nesting, breeding and brooding sites, and prescribed burns create these.

• Burning clears out overgrown hunting property making travel easier during the hunt. It also rids forest floors and open fields of leaves, pine straw and thatch that can create wildfires that destroy timber stands and wildlife habitat.

Prescribed burning cleans the forest floor to allow new growth.


Prescribed burning brings the browse level of preferred foods down to a level deer can reach. Plant foods like honeysuckles are stimulated for growth while more undesirable trees like sweet gum are controlled or eliminated.

Inspection of new growth following a prescribed burn.

Burning adds phosphorous, magnesium and calcium which are needed for healthy antler and bone development. The calcium also helps does produce milk for the fawns. Prescribed burn every three or four years when deer are the main objective.


Prescribed burns create openings for feeding and travel as well as dusting and strutting areas for gobblers. Poults survive 

exclusively on insects during the first nine weeks, and prescribed burning provides these insect-holding areas in the new forage growth.


Quail need ideal nesting and brood-rearing areas and escape cover. Coveys of quail perform poorly in dense vegetation. Burning at least every two years is sufficient for quail in most areas.

Like turkey poults, quail chicks’ exclusive diet for the first few weeks is insects, and the chicks survive better if they can walk on bare ground with cover. Prescribed burning stimulates the insect-holding forage, cleans thatch and dead matter from the ground for nesting and traveling, and encourages native cover plants.

Making a Prescribed Burn Plan

A professional forester from your local forestry commission can help you create a prescribed burning plan. First, obtain a map or aerial photo of the intended burn area. Your local courthouse can provide a map. Tell the forester whether you are burning for wildlife habitat or forest floor fuel reduction.

Next, get a burn permit from your county or state forestry officials. This permit helps fire officials respond quickly if the fire gets out of control. Include your burn permit on the plan. State foresters will create firebreaks and conduct the prescribed burn with adequate equipment for a small fee. An ATV sprayer or backpack sprayer filled with water helps extinguish remaining small flames.

Identify weather conditions, paying attention to temperature, relative humidity, wind direction and speed for your burning date. Make a list of any smoke sensitive areas nearby. Smoke around hospitals, homes, schools or highways can pose a liability threat.

Avoid burning during fawning, nesting or brood rearing times of wildlife. Your Alabama Department of Natural Resources can give you these seasons. Burn during the day between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Burning at night causes hazards from excessive smoke settling.

Burning in open fields is more subject to changes in wind velocity and moisture levels than forests, and sudden gusts of wind can cause fire to jump the breaks or burn with high intensity. Pine straw in pine stands helps keep an even burn and provides adequate fuel for optimum burning. Keep the fire at low intensity level to prevent hardwood damage.

Manmade firebreaks can be created with a bulldozer or a tractor with a disk harrow, and they need to be free of debris. Firebreaks approximately 12 feet wide can also serve as food plots and access roads. Natural firebreaks can be streams or access roads.

Preparing for a prescribed burn

Let neighbors and county officials know at least five days in advance of the burn. This gives people who suffer from asthma or allergies a chance to avoid the area and prepares county officials for incoming calls from residents who see smoke.

Study the topography of the land before you start the fire. In low elevation areas around creeks, fire will move slower because of more moisture. On the sides and tops of hills, fire will generally burn faster.

Conducting the Burn

The burn manager will often use a drip torch which is a canister full of gasoline and diesel fuel mixed together. The operator walks along a line dripping burning fuel onto the ground igniting the fire line.

The most common fire pattern used for a prescribed burn is the backing fire. Since the backing fire burns against the wind, it is easier to control. A backing fire does a better job of consuming ground fuel and generally produces less smoke.

Burn small tracts from one to ten acres at a time so the fire can extinguish itself before nightfall and you can avoid smoke liabilities from night burning.

Follow the guidelines of prescribed burning in your area and enhance your wildlife management program. Also, keep plenty of pine tops on hand.

John Howle is a freelance writer from Heflin.



Archive Contents

Date Last Updated January, 2006