By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
The rangers of the Georgia Forestry Commission want you to know they can do more for you than just put out fires on your land.
They can also help you start them.
“The deal is, by using fire as a tool, you can accomplish certain tasks, such as fuel reduction,” said Ranger Tawn McKinley. “Also, if you want to improve habitat, in other words, you want to encourage wildlife to come in, you’re going to have to open up the forest floor. By burning it off, the browse, the young plants, are going to be more plentiful, with less competition from the old weeds. The animals are going to naturally gravitate to that area because it’s open, it’s clean and it’s young growth.”
McKinley was explaining to the Sentinel the rather surprising concept that, though the Georgia Forestry Commission spends much of its time and resources battling forest fires, that doesn’t mean it thinks fire is bad. In fact, rangers consider fire a valued partner in maintaining healthy forests and healthy wildlife.
“Before God ever created us, there was fire,” said Ranger Bobby Dunn. “The woods need fire, and they’re going to burn regardless. Lightning strikes when it’s dry, it’s going to start a fire.”
And that’s not necessarily a negative, added the third member of the crew, Kerry Phillips. “The understory of the forest floor is taking a lot of stuff those bigger trees need away – nutrients, water – and they’re having to compete,” he said.
So optimally, said the rangers, fire knocks out those weeds and invasive plant species without harming the forest at all. “If you do the right type of burning at the right time of the year and under the right circumstances, the fire doesn’t kill the trees,” said Dunn.
“All it does is return the nutrients back to the ground, which allows the trees to grow that much more,” agreed McKinley.
Nor, said Dunn, does fire kill wildlife. “Deer and turkey and squirrel, they all know when a fire starts to go to different places,” he said. In all the controlled burns he’s attended, he said, never has he seen dead wildlife. “When the fire’s out, they come back and reap the benefits,” he said.
So fire can be a very good thing indeed, and landowners may use it to get a jump on kudzu, clear out privet and attract deer for hunting, said the rangers. But another basic use for burning – and one that in Dade looms larger than ever before after the killer tornados of 2011 – is getting rid of deadfall.
“In a one-acre plot of land, you might have two or three trees on the ground. That wouldn’t be a hard cleanup,” said McKinley. “But now, since the tornados, you may have thousands of trees on the ground. The most economical way to handle that is to put in control lines and burn it off, under the right conditions and the right supervision.”
And that’s where the Georgia Forestry Commission comes in. Though for liability reasons the landowner has to light the match himself, GFC rangers have the heavy equipment and the expertise to set the burn up safely, putting in firebreaks as needed, and to see that the fire stays under control.
“I sit down at the office before I go to the landowner’s home and I come up with a fire plan, what the weather’s going to be, how we’re going to do the controlled burn, what area we’re going to start at first – we take care of all that,” said Dunn. “The only thing the landowner has to do is be present, start the fire, and we spread it.”
“And pay the bill,” added McKinley.
The GFC charges landowners for prescribed burns, but McKinley say it’s almost impossible to give an average cost. “There’s no such thing as an average landowner in Dade County,” he said.
Pricing starts at $25 for an hour of ranger supervision and goes up from there depending on what the job involves, which can vary widely with the scope and terrain of the land. Basic equipment cost is $110 a machine hour.
But if a property has roads around it, or is bounded by a stream, there may be no reason to bulldoze in control lines at all, said McKinley; all that’s needed is a ranger standing by to watch. Another option the landowner has is to get the GFC to set up firebreaks, then back off and let him burn off the acreage himself at his leisure.
So if you’re interested in a burn at your place, advised McKinley, the best way to get started is to call or stop by for a consultation.
Another service that McKinley and crew offer, and that they want the public to know about, is establishing food plots to attract wildlife. “It’s basically making a garden,” said McKinley.
Their new headquarters on Highway 11 that, for the rangers, was the one good thing that came out of last year’s tornados – insurance built them a more spacious building than the one the storms blew away – harbors the mother of all harrows, an industrial-strength tool heavy-duty enough for the forest floor. “The normal tiller will not penetrate it, and you’ll beat yourself silly trying,” said McKinley. “We can come in and do it in an hour, where if you try to use a tiller on it you’re going to take days.”
The rangers prepare the food plot, said McKinley; it is up to the landowner to seed it. The same machine and manpower costs apply here as in prescribed burning, he said.
The rangers also wish to encourage residents to place their orders for tree seedlings now for January delivery. As always, the Commission can provide residents with dozens of varieties of Georgia-grown trees at a small cost, and you can order in quantities as low as 10.
Finally, McKinley, Dunn and Phillips remind the public that burn permits are required for most fires and may be obtained free of charge by calling (706) 657-4211 or (866) 652-2876, or by going online to gatrees.org.