- Division of Fisheries and Wildlife
- MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program
Prescribed fire is an essential tool for managing wildlife habitats and fire-influenced natural communities throughout Massachusetts. Plants and wildlife—including both game and non-game species—benefit from prescribed fires. Recreational activities, such as hunting, bird-watching, hiking, and nature photography are also significantly enhanced by prescribed fires. Prescribed fires are always performed with extreme caution by specially trained crews, when conditions are favorable, with safety always as top priority.
Recently, MassWildlife worked with prescribed fire partners to develop a Prescribed Fire Handbook and Policy. This past April, the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board approved the MassWildlife Prescribed Fire Policy. After prescribed burning this summer at important sites such as the Southwick Wildlife Management Area, field biologists have seen improvements to the treated areas, including increased germination of native warm season grasses and removal of thatch, improving habitat for birds to nest, rest, and forage for food.
Fire-adapted plants like low-bush blueberry grow more robust and produce more fruit in the years following a fire. Many wildlife such as black bear, white-tailed deer, and a variety of birds relish the increased berry production. Seeds of certain plants like wild blue lupine will germinate more readily after fire activity, producing many shoots—some of which will grow and increase flowering and fruiting, and some of which will provide essential food for declining animals like Frosted Elfin butterfly. Forty percent of animals and plants protected by the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act rely on habitat created by prescribed fires and over 200 Massachusetts Species of Greatest Conservation Need benefit from the fires. In addition to managing habitats, prescribed fires also help control natural fuel combustion. Essentially, trained prescribed fire crews perform smaller, prescribed fires to prevent larger, uncontrollable wildfires from starting. Natural fuels like dry twigs and woody debris, pine needles, and viney stems are burned and removed before they have a chance to spread and cause more extreme uncontrolled fire behavior.
Prescribed fires are just that, a prescription for the habitat where they are being performed. These fires are set and worked in a professional manner with a highly trained crew. Locations of burns and patterns of the actual fire are planned in advance. Weather and fuel conditions are monitored constantly in the days leading up to the prescribed fire and throughout the actual burn. Permits must be obtained from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection Air Quality Section and the local fire department to conduct open burning in Massachusetts. While the reason for performing a prescribed burn is habitat management, the top priority during the act of the burning is safety. Multiple agencies, organizations, and private entities—including DCR’s Bureau of Forest Fire Control, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US National Park Service, Northeast Forest and Fire Management, and many local fire departments—assist MassWildlife with planning and execution of prescribed fire.
Through 2018, MassWildlife will continue monitoring habitat growth and usage at prescribed fire sites. Plans are in the process for prescribed fires on other Wildlife Management Areas and other agency properties throughout the state.