Environmental Effects

Prescribed burning has direct and indirect effects on the environment. Proper use of prescribed fire, and evaluation of the benefits and costs of a burn require knowledge of how fire affects vegetation, wildlife, soil, water, and air and in turn how these impact humans especially in population centers. Burning techniques and timing of burns can be varied to alter fire effects. A more complete treatment of fire effects may be found at the US Forest Service web site FEIS.


Effects on Vegetation

Fire may injure or kill part of a plant or the entire plant, depending on how intensely the fire burns and how long the plant is exposed to high temperatures. In addition, plant characteristics such as bark thickness and stem diameter influence the susceptibility to fire. Small trees  of any species are easier to kill than large ones. Ambient air temperature also plays a role in how fire may effects vegetation.

Slide1.JPG (19479 bytes)

Hardwood top kill

Southern pine bark has good insulating qualities, and is thicker than the bark of most hardwood species. As a result, hardwood trees are generally much more susceptible to fire injury than are pines. Pine trees 3 inches or more in ground diameter have bark thick enough to protect the stems from damage by most prescribed fires. However, the crowns are quite vulnerable to temperatures above 135F. Pine needles will survive exposure to 130F for about 5 minutes, while similar needles exposed to 145F for only a few seconds will die. Very high temperatures are produced in the flames of burning forest fuels. Fortunately, the hot gases cool rapidly above the flame zone and are back to a few degrees above normal air temperature a short distance from a prescribed fire unless the wind is calm. Adequate wind should be present to help dissipate the heat and slow its rise into the over story canopy. Wind is also important in cooling crowns heated by radiation from fire. Southern pines generally survive complete crown scorch as long as there is little needle consumption. Severe needle scorch will, however, retard growth for a year or more after damage and, in this weakened state, the trees are more susceptible to drought and beetle attack.


Temperatures of the air and vegetation at the time of burning are critical factors. When the air temperature is 40F, it takes twice as much heat to kill the foliage in a tree crown at any given height above a fire than when it is 90F. The effect of high air temperature is recognized in using fire to control understory hardwoods. Although winter burns will top kill hardwoods, summer burns are generally required to kill hardwood rootstocks. Less heat is needed to raise plant cells to their lethal temperature during the summer, and as a general rule, plants are more easily damaged by fire when they are actively growing. In areas with scenic values, needle scorch and bark char may be a public perception problem.


Even though pine bark is a good insulator, cambial damage can occur from the extended smoldering of duff around the root collar (some times referred to as the duff donut especially in longleaf pine). Such damage is especially likely in previously unburned, mature trees where a deep organic layer has accumulated. Whenever heat penetrates into the soil, feeder roots and beneficial soil organisms are likely to be killed. Damaged pines are more susceptible to bark beetle attack, especially if adverse weather conditions (e.g. drought) after the burn compound any loss in tree vigor. However, many observers report less insect damage in stands that undergo periodic prescribed burns than in stands where fire has been excluded.


Prescribed fire generally is not used in the management of hardwoods intended for harvest once a stand is established.  Fire may not kill large diameter hardwoods outright, but it will often leave fire scars. Such scars reduce the wood products quality  of the lower portion of the bole and provide entry to insects and disease. Recent research has shown that fire may be necessary for the regeneration of certain species of upland oaks. Scarification of the acorn, exposure of mineral soil and opening up the stand to sun light may all be factors.

differential fire effects1.gif (72764 bytes)

Differential fire effects

Many benefits from prescribed fire, such as reduced hardwood competition, increased forage for grazing, and improved conditions for wildlife, depend on changes in the vegetation. Unwise use of fire may also alter species composition, but with adverse results, particularly when relying on natural regeneration.

Effects on Soil

Specific effects on soil may vary greatly.

Frequency, duration, and intensity of fire, as well as soil characteristics must be considered. Prescribed burning in the South normally causes little or no detectable change in amount of organic matter in surface soils. In fact, slight increases have been reported on some burned areas. Prescribed under-burns will not cause changes in the structure of mineral soil because the elevated temperatures are of brief duration. However, burning piled or windrowed debris, or burning when fuel and/or soil moisture conditions are extremely low, may elevate temperatures long enough to ignite organic matter in the soil as well as alter the structure of soil clays.  Likewise soil chemistry may be impacted by prescribed fire.  Soil amenities, fertilizers, may be volatized during a prescribed fire and thus reduce the beneficial effects of the fertilizer.

leave some duff1.gif (62920 bytes)

Leave some duff to protect the soil

As a stand matures, an increasing proportion of the nutrients on the site become locked up in the vegetation and are unavailable for further use until plants die and decompose. Low intensity fires speed up this recycling process, returning nutrients back to the soil where they are again available to plants. Under many conditions, burning may increase nitrogen fixation in the soil and thus compensate for nitrogen loss to the atmosphere that results from burning the litter layer. When duff layers are not completely consumed, changes in soil pore space and infiltration rate are very slight. If mineral soil is repeatedly exposed, rain impact may clog fine pores with soil and carbon particles, decreasing infiltration rates and aeration of the soil.

A major concern of the forest manager is how fires affect surface runoff and soil erosion. On most lower and Middle Coastal Plain sites, there is little danger of erosion. In the steeper topography of the Upper Coastal Plain and Piedmont, some soil movement is possible. However, if the burn is under a timber stand and some duff remains, soil movement will be minor on slopes up to 25 percent. The amount of soil movement will be greater after site preparation with heavy machinery than after prescribed burning.

exposing mineral soil1.gif (57014 bytes)

Exposing mineral soil in hilly terrain
can cause erosion

Care must be taken when clear-cut logging slash is burned on steep slopes. Until grass and other vegetation cover the site, surface runoff and soil erosion may occur. The burning phase of the "fell and burn" site preparation technique commonly used in the upper Piedmont and mountains should be completed by mid-September. This timing allows herbaceous plants to seed in and provide a winter ground cover. Burning should not be done if exposure of highly erosive soils is likely.

Soil should be wet or damp at the time of burning to ensure that an organic layer will remain after a prescribed burn. Moisture not only protects the duff layer adjacent to the soil, but also prevents the fire from consuming soil humus. If the forest floor is completely consumed, the microenvironment of the upper soil layer will be drastically changed, making conditions for near-surface tree roots very inhospitable. Damp soil also aids mop up after the burn.

Drought indicators

There are several drought indexes of importance to prescribed burners, Keetch-Bynam Drought Index, KBDI, is proably the most popular and most used.

The Palmer Drought Index is explains in more detail.

The Keetch-Bynam Drought Index is explained at http://www.wfas.net/content/view/32/49/ and http://www.agribiz.com/weather/drought.html

KBDI calculations

U.S. Drought Monitor

The Haines Drought Index

Effects on Water

protect streamside zones1.gif (73397 bytes)

Protect streamside zones

The main effect of prescribed burning on the water resource is the potential for increased runoff of rainfall. When surface runoff increases after burning, it may carry suspended soil particles, dissolved inorganic nutrients, and other materials into adjacent streams and lakes reducing water quality. These effects seldom occur after Coastal Plain burns. Problems can be avoided in hilly areas or near metropolitan water supplies by using properly planned and conducted burns. And by leaving buffer strips along streams.

Rainwater leaches minerals out of the ash and into the soil. In sandy soils, leaching may also move minerals through the soil layer into the ground water. Generally, a properly planned prescribed burn will not adversely affect either the quality or quantity of ground or surface water in the South.

Construction of fire breaks must be done in accordance with best management practice for water quality to avoid soil erosion and water quality problems.

Effects on Air

Prescribed fires may contribute to temporary changes in air quality. Air quality on a regional scale is affected only when many acres are burned on the same day. Local problems are more frequent and occasionally acute due to the large quantities of smoke that can be produced in a given area during a short period of time.

backing fire less smoke1.gif (110784 bytes)

Backing fires produce less smoke than heading fires

Smoke consists of small particles (particulate) of ash, partly consumed fuel, and liquid droplets. Other combustion products include invisible gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons, and small quantities of nitrogen oxides. Oxides of nitrogen are usually produced at temperatures only reached in piled or windrowed slash or in very intense wildfires. In general, prescribed fires produce inconsequential amounts of these gases. Except for organic soils (which are not generally consumed in prescribed burns), forests fuels contain very little sulfur, so oxides of sulfur are not a problem either.

Particulates, however, are of special concern to the prescribed burner because they reduce visibility. The amount of particulate put into the air depends on amount and type of fuel consumed, fuel moisture content, rate of fire spread and type of firing technique used. Rate of smoke dispersal depends mainly on atmospheric stability and wind speed.

National Ambient Air Quality Standards, NAAQS, are established by the Clean Air Act and administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  NAAQS establish the minimum concentration of a compound that is detrimental to human health.  If the minimum level is reached in an air shed the air shed is said to be in non-attainment and burning permits are not issued within the air shed.  Prescribed burners must be cautious not to contribute to non-attainment.

Class I Air Sheds are established by the Clean Air Act and are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.  A Class I Air Shed is an area of particular esthetic quality, such as the Grand Canyon, where visibility contributes to the esthetic nature of the area.  Wilderness areas are Class I Air Sheds.  The Sipsey Wilderness Area in the Bankhead National Forest is an example in Alabama.  Prescribed burners must be cautious not to contribute to the degradation of visibility in Class I Air Sheds particularly down wind from a burn area.  Prescribed burners should try to avoid esthetic quality degradation in any air shed.

Effects of smoke can be managed by burning on days when smoke will blow away from smoke-sensitive areas and residual smoke is reduced. Precautions must be taken when burning near populated areas, highways, airports, and other smoke-sensitive areas. Weather and smoke management forecasts are available as a guide for wind speed and direction. Any smoke impact downwind and down-drainage must be considered before lighting the fire. The burner may be liable if accidents occur as a result of the smoke. All burning should be done in accordance with applicable smoke management guidelines and regulations. During a regional alert when high pollution potential exists, all prescribed burning should be postponed.

Nighttime burning should be done with additional care because a temperature inversion may trap the smoke near the ground. This smoke can create a serious visibility hazard, especially in the presence of high humidity, (which occurs on most nights). In particular, smoke mixing with existing fog will drastically reduce visibility. Cool air drainage at night will carry smoke down slope, causing visibility problems in lowlands and valleys. Nighttime air drainage often follows waterways. Conditions can be especially hazardous near bridge crossings because of the higher humidity there. The earlier in the day a fire is completed, the less likely it is to cause nighttime smoke problems. More complete mop-up following daytime burning and nighttime burning only under very stringent prescriptions can minimize the occurrence of these problems.

Effects on Human Health and Welfare

(see Effects on Air section)

Occasional brief exposure of the general public to low concentrations of drift smoke is more a temporary inconvenience than a health problem. High smoke concentrations can, however, be a very serious matter, particularly near homes of people with respiratory illnesses or near health-care facilities.

Smoke can have negative short and long-term health effects. Fire management personnel who are exposed to high smoke concentrations often suffer eye and respiratory system irritation. Under some circumstances, continued exposure to high concentrations of carbon monoxide at the combustion zone can result in impaired alertness and judgment. The probability of this happening on a prescribed fire is, however, virtually nonexisten

smoke sensitive areas1.gif (42007 bytes)

Smoke sensitive areas can be impacted
by prescribed fire

Over 90 percent of the particulate emissions from prescribed fire are small enough to enter the human respiratory system. These particulates can contain hundreds of chemical compounds, some of which are toxic. The repeated, lengthy exposure to relatively low smoke concentrations over many years can contribute to respiratory problems.

Although the use of herbicides in forest management has increased all chemicals are now tested before being approved for use. Many of them break down rapidly after being applied. Moreover, both theoretical calculations and field studies suggest that prescribed fires are hot enough to destroy any chemical residues. Minute quantities that may end up in smoke are well within currently accepted air quality standards. Threshold limit values (TLV's) are often used to measure the safety of herbicide residues in smoke. Expected exposure rates of workers to various brown-and-burn, combination treatment of herbicide and fire, combinations have been compared with TLV's. They showed virtually no potential for harm to workers or the general public.

There is at least one group of compounds carried in smoke that can have an immediate acute impact on individuals. When noxious plants such as poison ivy burn, the smoke can cause skin rashes. These rashes can be much more widespread on the body than those caused by direct contact with the plants. If you breathe this smoke, your respiratory system can also be affected.

Effects on Wildlife

attracts wildlife1.gif (65730 bytes)
Prescribed burning attracts wildlife

The major effects on wildlife are indirect and pertain to changes in food and cover. Prescribed fires can increase the edge effect and amount of browse material, thereby improving conditions for deer and other wildlife. Quail and turkey favor food species and semi-open or open conditions that can be created and maintained by burning. Burning can improve habitat for marshland birds and animals by increasing food production and availability. 

The deleterious effects of prescribed fire on wildlife can include destruction of nesting sites and possible killing of birds, reptiles, or mammals trapped in the fire. Fortunately, prescribed fires can be planned for times when nests are not being used. Also, virtually all the types of prescribed fire used in the South provide ample escape routes for wildlife. For example, a large tract was operationally burned with aerially-ignited spot fires and immediately examined for wildlife mortality. Fish and game agency personnel found none, but noted deer moving back into the still-smoking burn. The ill-advised practice of lighting all sides of a burn area (ring firing) is a primary cause of animal entrapment.

Management of the endangered red cockaded woodpeckers presents a special problem because of the copious amounts of dried resin that stretch from the nest cavity toward the ground. The bird requires habitat historically maintained by fire, even though these pitch flows can be ignited, carrying fire up to the cavity. This is unlikely, however, if short flame lengths are prescribed and the fire return interval is frequent. As an added precaution, fuel can also be raked from around cavity trees. Fuels management through the repeated use of fire on annual or semi annual occurrences should result in low intensity fires which do not threaten the cavity.  On the other hand a stand which has not been burned for a long period of time must be treated cautiously.

Prescribed fire does not benefit fish habitat, but it can have adverse effects. Riparian zone (streamside) vegetation may be excluded from prescribed burns to protect high quality plant and animal habitat, and water quality. When shade is removed, water temperatures will increase. Burning conditions are often unfavorable along streams because Of increasing fuel moisture, making line plowing optional. But a buffer zone should always be left. If in doubt, a control line should be put in. Filter strips should be wide enough to prevent over surface flow from the treated area directly into the stream.  Common sense should dictate based on the conditions at a given spot.  Steeper areas need wider strips.  Areas with little litter and duff need wider strips.

Effects on Aesthetics

(see Effects on Air section)

The principal effect of prescribed burning on aesthetics can be summarized in one word: contrast. Contrast, or change from the preburn landscape, may be positive or negative depending largely on personal opinion. What may be judged an improvement in scenic beauty by one may be considered undesirable by another.

aesthetics enhanced1.gif (64054 bytes)
Aesthetics can be enhanced by prescribed fire

Many of the undesirable esthetic impacts are relatively short term and can be minimized by considering scenic qualities when planning a burn. For example, the increased turbulence and updrafts along roads and other forest openings will cause more intense fire with resulting higher tree trunk char and needle scorch. Generally, the more immediate unfavorable impacts such as smoke and ash, top killed understory plants, and a blackened forest floor are necessary to achieve two major benefits -increased visual
 variety and increased visual penetration.

Variety or diversity in vegetative cover will create a more pleasing, general visual character to the stand. Similarly, scenic qualities of the forest can be better appreciated if the stand can be made more transparent. An example is the reduction of an understory buildup along a forest road that will permit the traveler to see into the interior of the stand, perhaps to a landscape feature such as a pond or interesting rock outcrop. The smutty appearance of the ground will "green up" fairly quickly. Any scorched needles will soon drop and not be noticeable. Flowers and wildlife will increase.

Some important points are: 1) The apparent size of a burn can be reduced by leaving unburned islands to create a mosaic pattern of burned and unburned area. 2) Where hardwood inclusions are retained, make sure they are large enough to be relevant to the observer. 3) Observer criteria must be understood if reactions to a burn are to be predicted. Personal reactions will depend on observer distance, duration or viewing time, and aspect.

Questions: Environmental Effects

1.  Name the five general categories that fire effects may be divided into.
2.  What is the instantaneous lethal temperature of growing tissue in trees.
3.  Growing tissue is more susceptible than dormant tissue? Why?
4.  How does air temperature effect foliar damage to trees?32 
5.  What is the best season for understory burning for fuel reduction in a thinned pine plantation?
6.  Hardwood bark is a better insulator than pine bark?
7.  Fire factors that effect soil include?
8.  Prescribed fire effect water by
9.  Prescribed fire may effect water quality by
10.  NAAQS stands for
11.  Being out of compliance with NAAQS is referred to as
12.  NAAQS pertain to
13.  Class I Air Shed are critical areas of
14.  Fire fighters and prescribed burners are not at risk from woods smoke.
15.  Most mammals are genetically adapted to woods fire.

16.  The ignition pattern most likely to cause mammal mortality is

17.  Prescribed fire is a valuable wildlife habitat manipulation tool.

18.  The visual impact of prescribed fire to the untrained eye is always permanent.

19.  The esthetic impact of prescribed fire is

20.  KBDI is

21.  Pine needles exposed to 130 F for how long will die