AUBURN, Ala.—Alabama’s severe drought has fueled a destructive wildfire epidemic across the state. Since Oct. 1, more than 2,200 fires have burned almost 30,000 acres. Alabama Extension professionals say the ongoing drought is the main reason for the increased number of fires from 2015.
The Alabama Forestry Commission has an online map of every wildfire from Oct. 1 with fire icons at each location.
“The entire state looks like it’s burning,” says Dr. Becky Barlow, an Alabama Extension forestry specialist, about the map.
Regional Extension forestry and wildlife agent Andy Baril notes that the yearly burned land area in Alabama averages around 45,000 acres. Baril adds that with 20,000 acres burned in under two months, 2016 acreage of burned land will be substantively higher. Gov. Robert Bentley has put all 67 counties under a burn ban in an effort to reduce wildfires.
“A lot of fires actually start either because someone intentionally set the woods on fire –– arson –– or someone is burning paper trash in their backyard, and it gets out of hand,” Baril said. “The person in the second example would be fined under the burn ban, but wouldn’t go to jail. The person lighting the fire intentionally could go to jail if caught and convicted.”
Once a fire gets going, Barlow says cogongrass, an invasive non-native weed, poses a unique problem for Alabama foresters trying to fight fire, especially in the southern part of the state. Cogongrass burns extremely hot, meaning that everything around it will go up in flames. Most of the weed, on the other hand, is grown underground. Once the top burns off, the cogongrass sprouts even faster.
“A big problem with cogongrass is that it grows very quickly and chokes out other plants,” said Barlow. “It is a problem and will make wildfires worse.”
Since cogongrass is an invasive species and not eaten by native wildlife, homeowners can kill cogongrass with herbicides and not risk damage to the ecosystem. Barlow suggests glyphosate, a nonselective herbicide that kills most plants. Homeowners should be careful not to spray other plants if they want to attack cogongrass.
Barlow added that “if you target the area, you can control it.? She says herbicides are best applied in the spring and is less effective during drought conditions.
While controlling cogongrass could help prevent future fires, the most common suggested solution to a future epidemic is prescribed burning. This is a controlled fire intentionally started by a certified burn manager. When a fire is started in controlled conditions, it can burn off the understory that a more explosive inferno would use for fuel.
“Prescribed fire is done under very exact conditions,” says Alabama Extension forestry specialist Dr. Nancy Loewenstein. “They’re carefully controlled for how far they spread, and they leave the over story plants intact.”
Instead of destroying trees and shrubs, prescribed fires burn up ladder fuels. These are materials such as ivy or dead braches that can carry fire up the tree like a ladder. The fires are done under humid conditions and can be easily snuffed out if they begin to escalate out of control.
Baril suggests that rural landowners use prescribed fire every 3-4 years in piney woods. He also notes that landowners can become certified burn managers by taking classes. On his own property in Talladega County, Baril uses prescribed fire and created a 70 foot firebreak around his cabin. “Now, instead of having bushy material up to the house, we have a 70 foot edge,” he says.
“A fire requires three things: fuel, heat and air,” said Baril. “If you break any of those, the fire can’t happen.”
Barlow agrees with that assessment. “In the future, from a landowner’s perspective, getting a good prescribed burning plan can help prevent fires,” she said.
Adding plow or burn lines around a property can prevent the spread of a fire as well. She also suggests gating access roads to prevent arsonists from intentionally destroying property.
Homes are often protected from wildfires by roads, driveways and dirt paths, but Loewenstein reminds homeowners to remove pine needles and brush from the roof and the sides of a house.
Throughout Alabama, residents should take care not to build ground fires, use fireworks, or toss cigarettes near dry brush. In the future, prescribed burnings and cogongrass control can help prevent another outbreak like this one.