Prescription: Fire

Conservation Department Forester Tom Draper had a problem. The 3,357 acre Ketcherside Mountain Conservation Area presented a puzzle. Working with a wildlife biologist, Draper came to realize a portion of the area should be a savannah or a glade. Instead, he had 600 acres of brush and small trees. The area was neither good for wildlife nor for growing quality trees.

A savannah is an area of scattered, mature trees with a lush ground covering of grasses and wildflowers. Glades, home only to grasses and flowers, are most common in hilly terrain, often on south-facing and west facing slopes. Glades are drier and less conducive to woody plant growth than surrounding areas. If the area could be restored to a savannah or a glade, it would provide important habitat for deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife.

Draper knew he could open up this portion of Ketcherside Mountain with chain saws or herbicides. But both approaches are expensive and time consuming and, with saws, the stumps left behind would resprout. He decided a prescribed fire would be best. Only the area of savannah or a glade would be burned, and the fire would be kept out of surrounding forests.

A Conservation Department team burned the 600-acre tract on Ketcherside Mountain in the spring of 1995. "We are really happy with the way the habitat there is responding," Draper says. "There are grasses and forbs growing now, and we are seeing signs of more deer and wild turkeys." Maintenance burning will continue in the future, with the area being burned this year and in 1999. Later, the area may be burned in March or April every three to five years, and vegetation in study plots will be monitored closely to see how it responds to fire.

Foresters like Draper are now exploring the use of fire as a tool to shape the land they oversee. For contemporary conservationists, it's a learn-as-you go experience because we don't fully understand the relationships between fire and vegetation. American Indians probably set fires more widely and frequently than previously thought, and repeated burning at Ketcherside Mountain will mimic the fires that swept over this area in the years before European settlers arrived.

Fire has always fascinated us. Early peoples worshipped fire, for it heated their homes, cooked their food and kept away the creatures of the night. However, when fire got out of control and ravaged property and took lives, it was