by Bryan Lindenberger

Controlled burns – the safe and systematic setting of fires in habitats such as wetlands, grasslands or forests – serve a critical ecologic purpose. Carefully managed by experts in suitable weather conditions, controlled burns assist the regenerative process of maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

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Controlled burns serve a critical ecologic purpose.

Dr. Andrew Edelman, professor of biology at the University of West Georgia, said plants and animals in the southeast United States are adapted to a history of naturally occurring fires spanning thousands of years. In some cases, species’ survival – and thus the health of ecosystems as a whole – depends on these low-intensity burns.

“When you look at ecosystems like longleaf pine and other southeast forests, they are adapted to fire,” Edelman said. “They need it to thin out competing vegetation, maintain open structure for animals and promote forage for wildlife.”

Deadly and destructive fires in the western states may have contributed to public misunderstanding and a negative image of this natural process. The resulting over-suppression of fires has, in many instances, led to an unhealthy and dangerous buildup of fuel. When these fuels eventually ignite, the destruction to wild habitats and the risk of human property and life can be catastrophic.

Student uses a drop torch to set a managed fire in the woods.“By burning these low intensity fires every few years, you reduce that fuel,” Edelman said. “You also suppress some of the competing vegetation and rejuvenate that grassy understory that the wildlife need to survive.”

Controlled burns – sometimes referred to as prescribed burns – have regained popularity in recent years. Today, the USDA Forest Service, county governments, preservation-oriented nonprofits and other agencies use them to maintain healthy ecological systems. Of course, that doesn’t mean that unmanaged fires are beneficial. Experts are needed to administer them.

That is where Edelman’s fire ecology course at UWG comes in.

In this College of Science and Mathematics biology course, students participate in hands-on, experiential learning by conducting controlled burns. They learn the benefits of burns, as well as the safety precautions and meticulous planning involved.

As one exercise, students are introduced to a piece of property with its own unique boundaries and ecosystem. The students’ assignment is to develop a plan based on the techniques they’ve learned, the equipment they’ve used and the weather conditions necessary to time a safe, effective burn.

Dr. Edelman leads a student at a forest edge, starting a controlled fire with a drip torch.“A critical component is getting our students comfortable with fire,” Edelman said. “Students need to get on the landscape and apply what they have learned.”

With controlled burns regaining popularity in land management, UWG graduates with an understanding of controlled burns are in high demand.

Natural resource groups such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Georgia Department of Natural Resources and nonprofit groups such as the Nature Conservancy all require an understanding of fire and controlled burns necessary to maintaining biological diversity in the region.

“Agencies are using controlled burns on all state and national lands,” Edelman said, pointing out private groups use controlled burns as well. “If you want to work as a private consultant, forester or land manager, you need to know how to use this tool.”

For information on this and other biology courses at UWG, email or call 678-839-6546.

Posted on June 5, 2018