How Prescribed Fire Improves Whitetail Habitat: 10 Years Of Change (Episode 488 Transcript)

This is the video transcript. To watch the video for this episode click here.

GRANT: Many folks throughout the whitetail’s range hunt where the habitat has been severely degraded. It’s been degraded so long that some think that’s how the habitat appeared when the early settlers first saw it.

GRANT: Lighting up the top side of about a 50-acre burn; make sure our radios are on…

DANIEL: So, we’ve got a good black buffer…

GRANT: I set a head fire down there. I’m on top now.

GRANT: Historically, repeated fires created a rich and diverse habitat that was great for wildlife. But as we settled the area, wildfire became less frequent; the habitat changed significantly.

GRANT: Past forestry and land management practices have changed habitats and soils. For example, many of the south facing slopes here in the Ozark Mountains look drastically different than the early explorers reported.

GRANT: Several of the south facing slopes here were called balds because they were dominated by native grasses and forbs. And trees were relatively sparse. It was a savannah type habitat.

GRANT: South facing slopes tend to be much drier than north facing slopes even on the same ridge. And that’s because the south facing slopes receive much more direct sunlight, evaporating the moisture from the area.

GRANT: Through time several species of grasses and forbs have adapted for these drier conditions and even flourish on the south facing slopes.

GRANT: These native species are both beautiful and productive.

GRANT: Researchers believe that wildfire would commonly rush up the south facing slopes and then creep down the north facing slopes. If they made it through the valley, rush up the next south facing slope.

GRANT: When Tracy and I purchased The Proving Grounds several years ago, all the south facing slopes were full of eastern red cedar. There was very little sunlight reaching the forest floor.

GRANT: Eastern red cedar is poor habitat for most species of wildlife compared to the native grasses and forbs that were originally found on those slopes.

GRANT: Looking at a 2004 satellite image on Google Earth, of an area we call the 50-Acre Glade, tells the story.

GRANT: At that time, it was almost totally full of eastern red cedar. There was no cover from zero to three feet when I walked through there and almost no food for most species of wildlife.

GRANT: Knowing this area could be much more productive for wildlife, I hired a chainsaw crew to fell all the cedars in the 50-Acre Glade. I gave them instructions to fell all the cedars, but leave the productive oaks standing.

GRANT: After the chainsaw crew finished, we left the cedars laying in place for more than a year to allow them to dry. Then, we re-introduced fire into the area to convert it to productive habitat.

GRANT: That first prescribed fire was big and hot. Imagine burning thousands of dry Christmas trees laying over a 50-acre area.

GRANT: Through the years, we’ve burned that area several times. And each time it was easier because there was less fuel — making it safer and faster.

GRANT: When you check out the current satellite image on Google Earth, you can tell it’s changed from an unproductive habitat to a beautiful savannah habitat with lots of open land for native grasses and forbs and productive oaks still standing.

GRANT: It’s important to note that almost all the oaks on that south facing slope are native species locally called chestnut oak. It has a much thicker bark than most oaks and is much more fire resistant.

GRANT: I’ve got to tell ya — a standard white oak out there with the thin bark probably wouldn’t have survived that first intense fire with all the fuel from the cedars.

GRANT: We waited to ensure there was enough fuel to carry a fire to, once again, burn this area. And we decided last week was the time.

GRANT: Several days before we wished to burn, Tyler and the interns went and made a firebreak around the entire 50-acre area.

GRANT: There’s an old two-track running on top of the ridge. So, the guys started by blowing all the leaves out of that two-track and use that as a fire break.

GRANT: They then, again, used backpack blowers, along with the occasional need for a chainsaw and a weed eater, to create a break on the western side from the ridgetop to a creek.

GRANT: Where the creek wasn’t wide enough, they used backpack blowers again to create a break all the way down the southern side, tying into the first trail.

GRANT: While the guys were preparing a fire line, they got a few ticks and Ms. Tracy’s been getting a couple of ticks while shed hunting. So the day before the fire, the guys laid out all their fire clothes and treated them with Permethrin to repel ticks.

GRANT: The forecast for the next day showed excellent conditions for prescribed fire.

GRANT: I use the National Weather Service because they include several fire indices on their forecast.

GRANT: We loaded up the Yamahas early that morning and headed to the area we’d prepared to do a fire.

GRANT: While rolling through The Proving Grounds to the 50-acre area, I noticed frost in the bottoms and it was cold and humid. But I knew on that ridgetop south facing slope, it would be much warmer and drier.

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GRANT: March 22nd and we’re all set to do the first prescribed fire of 2019 here at The Proving Grounds. Conditions are excellent today.

GRANT: We’ve got pretty good transport wind which means our smoke is gonna go up and blow out — not just sit in the area. Humidity is gonna get low. Gosh, might dip below 30% and I expect it will on the south facing slope where we’re burning. I’m excited about this burn and I want to get started soon.

GRANT: Cool thing about it — it’s Owen and Ricky — two of our interns first prescribed fire. So, we’re going to be able to get some great habitat work done as well as share a little education about habitat management.

GRANT: Got the tools we need today. Gotta have great transportation. This fire is almost a mile long. We’ve got the blowers — the backpack blowers are how we made the line. The line is already made but we may have a slight jump or something and need to make more line.

GRANT: Of course, we’ve got the drip torches. That’s how we ignite the fire. We’ve got a chainsaw in case a snag catches on fire. We don’t want that getting up here where it can blow a spark across our fire line, so we’ll cut it down.

GRANT: All the tools are ready to go. I’ve got a really important tool here. I use a little Kestrel. It allows me to see wind speed, humidity. That’s one of the most important things I watch throughout the day to monitor the conditions.

GRANT: If the humidity gets really low, we won’t set quite as aggressive of head fire. It’s critical to be hydrated. We’re already hydrated and we need to stay that way throughout the day.

GRANT: Once you start getting dehydrated, you don’t perform as well, and you may not be making as good a decisions. That’s a huge safety issue.

GRANT: I tell my guys — I’m not trying to be crude — make sure your urine is clear throughout the day. If it starts getting a big color to it, you’re not drinking enough water; your performance is gonna go down and you could be at risk of getting in trouble.

GRANT: Our plan for this burn included lighting the top along the trail I discussed earlier, allowing that fire to back into the area about 20 or 30 yards creating a black area — a much larger fire break than just a trail the guys had blown the leaves out of earlier.

GRANT: Once we completed blacking out the top of the fire, we’d work our way down the west, lighting slowly; seeing how the fire behaved; reached the bottom and then go all the way to the east allowing the head fire to burn up through the unit.

GRANT: That head fire would hit the large area on top of the ridge we had already blacked out and simply put itself out.

GRANT: A head fire typically burns about 16 times faster uphill than a backing fire does downhill. That’s because the heat of the fire is preheating the fuel and it’s ready to burn as soon as it ignites.

GRANT: All right. So, we’re just — you know, what I do is just start a blower up at the start just to make sure everything’s good, working and everything — we know they’re already full. And I’ll get my torch ready.

GRANT: And today, as that humidity really drops — if I give you a torch for a little experience, you don’t have to stream a line of fuel. It’s gonna spread really easily once that humidity gets down.

GRANT: You just make a spot — it will grow.

GRANT: So, you got any questions? You okay? Everybody feel good? You’re hydrated? Before you go, get a bottle of water in your pocket.

GRANT: Let’s all make sure our radios are on. I’m gonna turn mine on. Let’s all use channel 1 today. With all our safety systems in place, I grabbed a torch and started lighting.

GRANT: I always prefer to light a small area and watch the fire’s behavior. Even though we knew the weather forecast, there’s nothing like seeing how a fire will behave on a specific site.

GRANT: You can tell it’s pretty calm right now. Let’s just see what happens. So, we can see our wind is going the way it’s supposed to.

GRANT: Now, later in the day, that will spread much quicker. We’ve still got quite a bit of humidity and, you’ve got to remember, these leaves are porous. It’s sucked up humidity all night long.

GRANT: When that sun gets up higher — we’re in a little bit of shade here — starts baking that out, it will be going much more aggressive.

GRANT: And typical of the Ozarks, I mean, the smoke was going that way; now it’s going this way. That’s like hunting here, folks. So, we just — if we were hunting here, our scent just went from there to there in a matter of a couple of minutes.

GRANT: Now you can see it’s going back this way.

GRANT: Once we get it going, we’ll light my torch here. I’ll get a little fuel on my wick. The wick’s in here and it takes a while to get going good. And then, I can string fire like that.

GRANT: Fire conditions can change rapidly, so I’m constantly watching how the fire behaves; where the flames are going and even where the smoke is going.

GRANT: I took off lighting along the top of the ridge to the west while Daniel started working east.

GRANT: Lighting up the top side of about a 50-acre burn. We’re on the ridgetop. We’ll get this blacked out; work around and set a head fire on the bottom. By that time, we’ll have 50 yards or so of black area, which is a great fire line doing a big job to improve the habitat here today at The Proving Grounds.

DANIEL: So, things are pretty black up here on top. It’s backed out into the glade. We’ve got a black line — about 20, 30 yards. Grant’s heading down the west end. He’s starting to light it because we’re black up top. There’s no fuel up here for that fire to come up and get up on top. So, he’s lightin’ and things are starting to get hot.

GRANT: On the fire line. I’ve been lighting and I’m way down the mountain. It’s always hard to tell elevation from a flat camera like this. I’m half a mile or less from where we started.

GRANT: The fire is working perfectly. There’s just enough breeze going the right direction, up the hill. What’s interesting is that the wind is actually going this way. Because of thermals I’m taking advantage of this morning, it’s rising up off the line.

GRANT: Fortunately, the humidity was low enough this morning that I could get ahead of it, let the fire go off the line before the wind wants to push it back this way. So, I’m getting a lot of black line; taking advantage of the conditions; letting one go.

DANIEL: So, I’m about 20 yards off the fire line. But we’ve kind of got a small hill right here through the hardwoods. So, what I did was I came through and I lit right on the top of this ridge. If I would have stepped down into the burn unit and started lighting, it would have ripped up the hill; come up over the hill; and it could have gotten hot and out of control pretty fast.

DANIEL: If I would have started at the, at the fire line, it would have ripped up this hill; gotten hot and possibly damaged some of these larger oaks in this area.

DANIEL: So, by just starting at the top of this little ridge; letting it back down into the bedding area; and then back down over the hill towards the actual fire line, we’re saving our, saving our oaks and we’re blacking out at the same time.

GRANT: Even though the wind was fairly constant, the team was constantly walking back and forth in the area where we had already set fire to make sure an ember hadn’t blown across the line and set a fire outside the area we wished to burn.

GRANT: One of you ought to work up until you see Tyler and one of you…

DANIEL: One thing that we always want to do on these fire lines is we want to have radios. We don’t want to depend on our cell phones. We’ve got these mountains; service is spotty; batteries die; you know, a lot of things can happen.

DANIEL: So, we want a good quality radio so we can quickly just hit the button, talk to someone, communicate what’s going on — communication is key on these fires. So, we’ve all got radios; we’re all talking, letting everyone know what’s going on and what we’re seeing and, hopefully, we’ll have a safe burn.

GRANT: We get a lot of questions why we burn and there are many great reasons, but here’s just one. There’s a little — oh, a little pile of four-inch oak branches right there. They’re dead.

GRANT: But, it would rot really slowly or decompose really slowly on this south facing slope. It’s really dry, like a desert, so by burning all the minerals are just gonna be deposited right there. Now, it’s not many — wood doesn’t have a lot of minerals in it.

GRANT: But, take two or three sticks like that and we’re looking at a foot square of land — well, that’s a lot of minerals to shoot some grasses or forbs up. We’re just releasing what plants have taken out of the ground for years and depositing on the soil with the fire.

DANIEL: As you can see, we’ve blacked out from the timber all the way into the glade. So, we’ve got a good, black buffer — no fuel going up to the top of the hill here.

DANIEL: So, once we’re black all the way up top on the ridge, Grant’s gonna start down at the bottom. He’s gonna start lighting it and we’re just gonna ring it around. It’s gonna be a really hot, intense fire coming up the hill and gonna be doing a lot of great habitat work for us.

DANIEL: Well, I’m standing out in the bedding area and you can see back behind me; there’s just a thick wall right there of hardwood saplings. Those hardwood saplings — they used to have leaves and they were shading out the ground.

DANIEL: Flatwood Natives came in; used herbicide; treated ‘em; the leaves fell off; they’re dead and it is just fine fuel for this fire.

DANIEL: But, now, we’ve got native grasses and forbs coming up. We’re gonna knock all this back with the fire and have early succession growth which is gonna be great habitat and food for wildlife.

GRANT: The creek bottom, down below me, is the bottom line. I set a head fire down there; I’m on top now. And this is all burned out up here.

GRANT: So, we’ve got a black line on top. You can see the fire coming up the slope down there — about 150, 200 yards. It’s perfect for savannah type habitat. Burning that native grass; singeing the cedars — probably won’t kill ‘em. We’ll have to do that with a chainsaw. And not hurting those oaks.

DANIEL: Walking through the fire; checking and seeing how things are burning, I came across this area. We’ve got these oaks and it’s wide open underneath — fire came through and did exactly what it’s supposed to do. Can you just imagine how beautiful and productive this area is gonna be here in just a few weeks when we start getting spring green up?

DANIEL: This is just an absolute perfect example of the savannah type habitat we’re going for and this native habitat that once dominated these south facing slopes here in the Ozarks. I am just thrilled when I see this.

GRANT: Slow end to a long day — not a bad day, but I’m down here in a little corner and I’ve got a little fire going — eating out, just maybe, ten more yards.

GRANT: You’ve got to stay with the whole fire, folks. ‘Cause fire is never satisfied. It’s like King Solomon wrote, it’s never satisfied. So, it will keep eating and eating through there.

GRANT: Now, I’ve got a road right here and a creek right over here. But, I’m gonna stay with it until it gets all the way out.

GRANT: During some of the first burns when there was a lot of woody fuel on this site, it would take us into the night to complete the fire. But through successive prescribed fires, we have removed a lot of that large, woody fuel and we were able to safely finish by early afternoon and there wasn’t one spot-over. Not one area where the fire crossed our line.

GRANT: An important safety step is to return to the fire the next day and make sure everything is out and nothing jumped the line during the night.

GRANT: Okay. Owen, Ricky and I are checking the fire line. The wind’s gonna gust at 20 miles an hour today. We’ve got a fire break over here about ten yards and just a little bit of flame. An old log has carried flame all night.

GRANT: So, we’re gonna put this out because a 20 mile an hour wind — we don’t want to take any chance it got over into the unburned area. So, we’re gonna get that in the black area and we’ll be safe.

GRANT: Checking out the burn we did yesterday, it’s cold which means no hot spots. Looks really good. But you see all these saplings here — just gads of saplings. And they’re almost all dead because Flatwood Natives come in here and treated herbicide — used an herbicide to kill all these.

GRANT: So, we had burned this — what’s important — three or four times before and were not able to get it hot enough to kill these saplings.

GRANT: So, it was necessary to use one herbicide treatment that will last my lifetime. Take out the saplings, but obviously did not damage thousands of mature trees in this area. So, really great strategy for improving this habitat.

GRANT: We’re done. We don’t have to disturb the soil anymore with the herbicide. We use fire every three to five years.

GRANT: This place will be green — I’ll come back here — this place will be green as a gourd after we get a good rain, some warmer days – and tremendous forage for deer, turkey and a lot of non-game species.

GRANT: These acorn trees don’t have much competition, so they’ll produce a lot of acorns. This is classical savannah habitat. And it is rich habitat for wildlife.

GRANT: As we were walking the line, we heard a tom fire off not too far from the burn.

GRANT: We sat down to enjoy this and he gobbled several times.

GRANT: Turkeys are very attracted to recent burns. It uncovers all the duff and makes bugs, salamanders and even new plants available for easy feeding.

GRANT: Hearing that tom fire off was a great reminder of why we do this type of habitat improvement work.

GRANT: Another blessing was later that afternoon and evening, it come a gentle rain. Just enough to put out any residual flames inside of logs we may have missed and cause those native seeds in the soil to germinate quickly.

GRANT: I’m confident in the next couple of days there will be a lot of grasses and tender forbs sticking up throughout the burn. This will provide great quality food for wildlife during the critical period of time – the last of this winter. And in a few weeks, it will be tall enough for good quality turkey nesting habitat.

GRANT: I always enjoy returning to the burns to see how the forage is progressing and we’ll keep you updated, hopefully, to encourage you to use prescribed fire where appropriate.

GRANT: If you would like to see how the native vegetation responds to this prescribed fire or our food plot techniques, please subscribe to the GrowingDeer newsletter.

GRANT: I hope you get to experience the benefits and joys of working with habitat. But even if you don’t, I hope you take time, frequently, just to get outside, walk around and enjoy Creation and daily, to slow down, be quiet, and listen to what the Creator is saying to you.

GRANT: Thanks for watching GrowingDeer.