Workshop teaches proper prescribed burning methods

(03/19/24) FLORIEN, La. — Rodney McKay knows a lot about starting fires.

Between 15 and 25 times a year, McKay heads into the woods with a drip torch, rakes and an array of other tools used to light fires, monitor their spread and manage the smoke they produce. As the land manager of the Louisiana Ecological Forestry Center in Sabine Parish, McKay employs a practice called prescribed burning to ensure the health of the thousands of acres of longleaf pines he oversees.

Burning fallen trees and excess brush helps limit fuel for wildfires — a problem that is fresh on the minds of many in western and central Louisiana, where drought and extreme heat led to blazes in numerous forests this past summer. Prescribed burns also benefit wildlife, letting in sunlight that encourages the growth of forages. And they can improve the aesthetics of the forest.

Fire, of course, has inherent risks. Teaching others about the value of prescribed burning and how to do it safely is important to McKay and the foundation in charge of the forestry center, which is located near Florien on the site of the former Hodges Gardens State Park. For the past several years, McKay has joined the LSU AgCenter in leading prescribed burning certification workshops, including one held March 11 to 13.

About a dozen people — from private landowners to rookie firefighters with the state Office of Forestry — participated in the training, which included a burn exercise as well as classroom lessons on weather considerations, regulations, fire behavior and wildlife impacts. Those who passed an exam on the final day of the workshop were certified as prescribed burn managers.

Wearing a yellow, flame-resistant shirt on the morning of the burn exercise, McKay filled out a burn plan form, checked the weather forecast and called state officials to alert them he was planning to conduct a prescribed burn.

“There’s a lot of little things to pay attention to,” he told the group.

With help from the forestry center crew along with AgCenter agents Keith Hawkins and Valerie West, McKay guided the students as they used a drip torch filled with a mixture of diesel and gasoline to start a line of fire in the pine straw circling a tract of trees due for a prescribed burn.

As the fire grew, smoke shrouded the forest. It was time for other equipment to come into play, like flaps, which smother fire, and a few different types of rakes, which help move leaves and other material out of the way to create a fire line that limits the spread of flames.

Adam Gordon, a private landowner managing property in Allen and Beauregard parishes, was among those in the class. He already had experience with prescribed fires but wanted to learn more and acquire the burn manager certification.

“We’re learning how to fill out a proper burn plan, how to assess a situation, when it’s a good day and bad day and how we can work within those parameters,” he said.

He was motivated to enroll in the class after the 2023 wildfires in his area.

“We had some horrible experiences this summer with wildfires that kind of opened a light to a lot of us to what we didn’t understand could be possible,” Gordon said. “We were doing some of these burnings to work with wildlife but also to help the timber. But now we do it as a precautionary measure where we can look at not getting ourselves in that same situation — setting up more fire lines, better maintaining those and also having the equipment available on hand to handle what could come up in the future.”

While it’s legal to burn without the certification in Louisiana, completing a course can be beneficial.

“There’s a certain way to do it right and there’s a certain way to do it wrong, and we’re trying to help with the right part,” said Hawkins, an agriculture and natural resources agent based in Beauregard Parish.

One of the most critical aspects of planning and managing a prescribed fire is keeping smoke from getting out of control. Burners must take precautions to ensure smoke stays away from places like residential areas, schools, nursing homes, hospitals, roads and airports.

When used properly, fire can be a useful management tool for foresters and landowners.

“It is the least expensive tool to use — much less expensive than using herbicides or doing heavy mechanical site prep, for example,” Hawkins said.

For McKay, prescribed burning is helping him maintain a longleaf pine forest — an important but disappearing habitat in his part of Louisiana. About 5 million acres of longleaf can be found across the southeastern United States.

“The longleaf pine ecosystem can support a lot of different wildlife, including threatened and endangered species,” McKay said, adding that he has noticed more and higher-quality wild turkeys, quail and deer following burns.

Men standing around the tailgate of a truck filling out paperwork.

Rodney McKay, left, land manager of the Louisiana Ecological Forestry Center, and LSU AgCenter agent Keith Hawkins, right, review their plans before starting a prescribed burn March 12. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Two men walking through the woods conducting a prescribed burn.

LSU AgCenter agent Keith Hawkins, right, guides a participant as he uses a drip torch to lay flame for the back fire during a prescribed burn training March 12 at the Louisiana Ecological Forestry Center near Florien. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter


Flames consume pine straw and cones during a prescribed burn training at the Louisiana Ecological Forestry Center near Florien March 12. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Man walking in the woods conducting a prescribed burn.

Adam Gordon, of Oakdale, uses a drip torch during a prescribed burn training at the Louisiana Ecological Forestry Center near Florien March 12. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Men using hand tools in a smoke-filled forest.

Shrouded in smoke, participants of a March 12 prescribed burn training at the Louisiana Ecological Forestry Center use flaps to put out fires. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

3/18/2024 7:51:05 PM
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