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Using Fire as a Tool

A controlled burn for hazard fuel reduction at Lake James State Park.

Fire is a natural part of the environment and frequently occurs throughout North Carolina. Many of our forests require fire to remain healthy and thrive. Controlled burns, also known as prescribed fire, are planned and intentionally ignited to meet certain land management objectives. Wildfires are unplanned and uncontrollable fires that can put life and property at risk. These fires can be caused by lightning or human ignitions, either accidental or arson related.

Uses for controlled burns often include:

  • invasive plant control

  • regeneration of native tree seedlings

  • site preparation for planting trees and/or seeds

  • enhancing wildlife habitat

  • reducing the threat of hazardous wildfires

  • farm, range, and brush management

  • economic gain

  • aesthetics

"Fire on the Land" video by Mountain Valleys RC&D.

Fire can rejuvenate a natural landscape and improve native habitat. Many species in the southeast depend on fire for survival such as the chestnut-oak, red-cockaded woodpecker, and pine snakes, to name a few. Fires break down organic material much faster than decomposition, thus renewing soil nutrients more quickly. This triggers a rebirth of forests, helping to maintain native plant species. It provides more fertile soil and opens up the forest canopy, promoting vitality and the luscious growth of grasses and forbs. Fire exposes seeds and attracts insects, providing many important animal species food to forage.

A “hazard reduction burn” is a form of prescribed fire. This type of fire is used to remove built up dead fuel (vegetation) from the forest floor, such as shrubs, vines, woody debris, leaves and needles. Burning like this on a regular basis prevents the fuels from building up, which would prevent a much hotter fire that could burn up into the crowns of the trees, destroying the trees and everything in the path of fire.

Anatomy of a Prescribed Burn from the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation (link).

Controlled burns are usually performed in late fall to early spring. If you see smoke in the air, it could be one of these burns being performed in your area!

Interested in fire on your landscape?

The Southern Blue Ridge Prescribed Burn Association was recently formed as a community-based organization connecting landowners and other community members to training, equipment, and educational programs to increase the effectiveness and safety of prescribed fires on private lands. They promote multiple "Learn and Burn" events, where the public is invited to observe (and sometimes participate in!) a live burn. Members of the Southern Blue Ridge Prescribed Burn Association sitting in "the black" after a burn.

Mountain Valleys is hosting a Learn and Burn event at Bailey Mountain Preserve in Mars Hill in November 2022. You can join us to watch the burn and talk with local fire professionals about the methods they use and how you can burn your land.

Sign up here to get email updates for the exact date!

Other helpful links:

"Using Fire to Improve Wildlife Habitat" from NC State Extension Office

"Oshkigin Sprit of Fire" video by Dovetail Partners of the Great Lakes Region.


To find out more about fire adaptation and what you can do to reduce your home's wildfire risk, visit our Forest Resource page here or contact us at

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