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Prescribed fire for habitat management

Prescribed fire is an essential tool for managing wildlife habitats and fire-influenced natural communities throughout Massachusetts.

Several tools are used to create, restore, and maintain a variety of open habitat types including grassland, shrubland, and young forests on public Wildlife Lands across Massachusetts to meet habitat goals. Tools include: wood product harvest, mowing and mulching, invasive plant management, and prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire

prescribed fire for habitat management
Prescribed burn on Penikese Island 2011

Many people are surprised to hear about the fundamental role that fire plays in shaping the Massachusetts landscape. For many decades total fire exclusion from all natural lands was general policy throughout Massachusetts and the entire United States. Fire exclusion has resulted in the decline of numerous species and degradation of entire ecosystems.

Historically, fire played a fundamental role in shaping certain portions of the Massachusetts landscape. In particular, glacial deposits of excessively well drained sand & gravel soils tend to be associated with relatively short fire intervals. These soil types occur primarily in coastal areas and in association with major river valleys, and lightning-caused fires and/or fires set by Native people in these areas historically maintained highly  productive wildlife habitats including heath lands, pitch pine/scrub oak barrens, and open canopy oak-pine woodlands. Decades of fire exclusion following European settlement resulted in the decline of numerous species and degradation of entire fire-associated ecosystems. In Massachusetts, some vegetation and habitats have evolved with fire and are best maintained with periodic burning, including some areas that are home to state- and federally-listed rare, endangered, or threatened species. Prescribed fire is used to restore and maintain these habitats.

The primary concerns for all prescribed burns are involve human safety and protection of built infrastructure. Planning is critical for every burn. Fire behavior and weather are monitored throughout the burn, and if the prescription parameters are exceeded the fire is “shut down”. Permits are required from the town fire chief and the air quality staff at DEP’s regional offices. The local fire chief can of course stop the fire at any time. There is a public meeting in most areas before prescribed burning is introduced. Abutting landowners are notified of fire dates, reasons, and expectations

Approximately 30% of the MESA-listed plant and animal species in Massachusetts benefit from the conditions created and maintained by fire. Natural Communities that benefit from prescribed burning include Sandplain Grassland, Sandplain Heathland, Scrub Oak Shrubland, Pitch pine-scrub oak, Ridgetop pitch pine-scrub oak, Calcareous fen, and Oak woodland.

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