Did you see the “good fire” on Oak Mountain?

Oak Mountain State Park Fire
Prescribed fire at Oak Mountain State Park on March 4, 2021. Photo via The Nature Conservancy in Alabama

Did you see the smoke coming from Oak Mountain State Park (OMSP) right off I-65 yesterday? Don’t worry, the park was not in danger. In fact, it was a “good fire.”

Led by the Alabama Forestry Commission and supported by the Alabama State Parks and The Nature Conservancy in Alabama (TNC), the coalition strategically set and supervised a prescribed fire that burned about 300 acres inside the park boundaries.

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Thanks to perfect conditions on March 4th that included recent rains and the winds blowing in the right direction so the smoke stayed away from Birmingham, the day long event was a huge success.

Where Was The Fire?

Immediately after the event, we caught up with TNC’s  state director Mitch Reid to get all the details about where they lit the fires and why prescribed burns are an important stewardship tool for the state park and forests across the state.

According to Reid, the coalition burned the “lake unit” at Oak Mountain State Park which is above the north entrance and near the Belcher Tract. This particular unit has significant stands of old growth longleaf pine which need fire to thrive.

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If the Belcher Tract sounds familiar it is because that particular adjacent property to OMSP is currently being considered for acquisition by Forever Wild. If that happens, Oak Mountain will add 1600 acres to the park, an expansion almost equaling the size of two New York City Central Parks.

In addition to the lake unit controlled fire, the Forestry Commission also burned the campground section of the park which has been burned before and is showing signs of restoration.

Good Fire

Reid called the prescribed fires at Oak Mountain State Park – “good fires.”

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He explained:

“First, the fire allows us to reduce the fuels (combustible biomass found in forests), so that we don’t end up with a wildfire situation like something that we may be familiar with out in California.

Oak Mountain Fire
Prescribed fire at Oak Mountain State Park on March 4, 2021. Photo via Keith Tassin of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama

The second reason, is that in Alabama and throughout the southeast, our ecosystems evolved with fire. Before we built railroads and highways there were millions of acres of forestland that a lightning strike on a hilltop somewhere would result in hundreds of 1000s if not millions of acres to be set on fire. So if you had a a fire take place at Oak Mountain, for example you would expect that fire to burn all the way to the Cahaba River and probably all the way over to the Coosa River. Over time, the longleaf pine ecosystem evolved so that it only functions if you have a regular fire. Of course we can’t wait for lightning strikes.”

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He described this week’s prescribed fire at Oak Mountain as a surgical operation.

“We accomplished not only the restoration of the native habitat, but we also reduced the likelihood of a wildfire that may affect surrounding communities.”

All Over Alabama

Bibb County Prescribed Fire
Prescribed fire in Bibb County in 2017. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now
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It is prescribed fire season in Alabama. Just this week there will be burns at Grand Bay in Mobile County, Skyline Wildlife Management Area, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Horseshoe Bend National Park, several national forests and on private property throughout the state.

“We’re in the middle of fire season. The fire at Oak Mountain was a good example for the Birmingham community to see what’s happening all over the state right now. This is a team effort between private landowners, the state DCNR, Forestry Commission state parks, and nonprofits like TNC, Alabama Wildlife Federation, Quail Forever and the Longleaf Alliance.”

And that team effort will restore and enhance natural habitats and keep neighboring communities safe from wildfires.

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