Friendly Fire

The months of February, March and April are primetime for prescribed fires across the Tennessee Valley. Hugh Standridge, senior manager, Natural Resources Management explains how TVA uses fire to improve our region’s wildlife habitat.

FEBRUARY 6, 2019—Wildfires, like the devastating fires that have swept California in late 2018, are always a threat to forested land. But TVA takes careful steps throughout the year to care for its forests, including “prescribed burns” that are done on purpose.

The months of March and April are prime time for prescribed fires across the Valley because of moisture levels left by winter rains. But unlike deadly wildfires that were seen in the Valley in 2016 and California in 2018, this fire is a prescribed burn on TVA land designed to promote wildlife habitat and recreation.

“Fire is beneficial to the environment if it is managed properly,” says Hugh Standridge, senior manager, TVA Natural Resources Management. Standridge leads a team of TVA natural resources professionals that helps to manage 293,000 acres of public lands across seven states.

Burning for Benefits

Over the next two months, TVA employees will join with various state and federal agency partners to conduct about 20 prescribed fires on its public lands across the Valley. TVA estimates that it will burn about 2,000 acres this spring. As a result, the fires will prepare sites for seeding of native grasses, control invasive plant species, improve habitat and enhance the aesthetics and access for recreation.

“Safety is our primary focus and there’s a lot that goes into the process before we conduct a prescribed fire,” says Standridge.

While wildfire prevention is not the primary goal of prescribed fires, controlled burning reduces underbrush, fallen limbs, and other flammable material in wooded areas, which reduces some of the quick-burning fuel that can feed wildfires. 

Standridge explains that like other state and federal agencies that use fire to manage public lands, TVA develops an extensive safety plan and habitat management objectives for each parcel or groups of parcels that would benefit from a prescribed fire. Then TVA submits the plan to the appropriate State Division of Forestry for review and to obtain a fire permit. Finally, the prescribed fire area is prepared to ensure all the safeguards and necessary controls are in place—such as fire breaks—to protect the public and property.

“Conditions must be perfect,” he explains. “If conditions aren’t right—the ground is too dry, too wet, or if it’s too windy—we stop everything until it’s perfect.”

Nurturing Wildlife

Some land management practices have suppressed fire which allows invasive plants to out-compete native grasses. But TVA believes that fire is a natural component in an ecosystem, and uses fire strategically to maximize the benefits for wildlife habitat and recreation.

Each year TVA conducts prescribed fires on public lands to maintain, create and protect some of the most diverse habitats in the Tennessee Valley, like rare prairies and glades, and native pine forests.

According to Standridge prescribed fires rejuvenate the land to support a healthy functioning natural habitat here in the Tennessee Valley.

“If left unchecked, invasive species can choke-out native plant species harming the Valley’s ecosystem,”  Standridge explains. “Warm-season grasses are one of the foundations for the food chain—birds eat the seeds, bats eat the insects and deer graze in the open fields. Fire promotes the growth of these grasses and a healthy food chain.”    

Prescribed fires also have benefits for recreation. Fire improves habitat for game animals (deer, turkey, quail, etc.,) as well as non-game animals, such as songbirds, for birdwatching enthusiasts. Fire also improves the land’s aesthetic value by promoting flowering annuals and biennials and creates open spaces for vistas such as a park like setting.

Each year TVA conducts prescribed fires on different parcels of land to ensure each area is properly managed for wildlife habitat and recreational activities.

“TVA’s mission is to protect the environment, and it’s rewarding to go back after a prescribed fire to see native plants and animals thrive once again,” Standridge says.

Safety First

All prescribed fires are permitted by the appropriate State Division of Forestry. The local fire department is notified before a prescribed fire begins. If you see a fire and are not sure if has been prescribed, immediately report it to your local fire department. If it is happening on TVA land, call the TVA Police at (855) 476-2489.