Controlled burn serves dual purpose

Published 4:59 pm Thursday, November 20, 2008

A controlled burn at Oak Mountain State Park Thursday served as an on-site laboratory for Dr. Scot Duncan’s general ecology class from Birmingham-Southern College.

For the past five weeks, Duncan and his 16 students have set up research lots to examine the welfare of the park’s mountain longleaf pine forest community. According to Duncan, the longleaf pine depends on periodic fire and reduced underbrush for its survival, and the park’s forest has not burned in decades.

The assistant professor views the controlled burn as an important step in the right direction.

“This is one of the important pockets in Shelby County,” Duncan said. “At one time 90 percent of the county was covered with longleaf forest. We have to have fire to keep the longleaf around.”

From an ecological standpoint, the controlled burn will enhance wildlife and plant species’ preferred habitat for open, park-like spaces, replenish nutrients in the soil and reduce the risk of damaging wildfires. Of the longleaf forest’s 325 acres, the burn covered a 60-to-120-acre zone.

This semester, Duncan’s class has studied fuels loads, and the forest’s vegetation and soil conditions. After the Thanksgiving holiday, the class will return to the park to record the results of the controlled burn.

Forrest Bailey, chief of the Natural Resources Section for the State Parks Division of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the controlled burn served a dual purpose. In addition to supplying the academic community with valued research, the burn was an opportunity for fire personnel to practice the Oak Mountain State Park Wildlife Management Plan.

“What we’re trying to do is kill two birds with one stone,” Bailey said. “We crafted a broad plan that would enable the fire departments to isolate a wildfire.”

Bailey said the exercise was a cooperative effort among the state parks division, the Alabama Forestry Commission, Shelby County EMA, the Wildland Fire Academy Class and the Pelham, North Shelby and Chelsea fire departments.

Bailey said the need for controlled burns has become increasingly important as neighborhoods surrounding the park continue to experience growth.

“The growing neighborhoods are encroaching around the park’s borders, and we have to be well aware of what’s going on outside those borders,” Bailey said. “It’s our responsibility to eliminate the fuels built up over the years around these borders.”

Bailey added, “We hope as a division to do more burns. The more we burn the safer it becomes in the future.”