Understanding and Using Prescribed Fire

Research Issue

[photo:] An oak seedling-sprout in a stand where prescribed fire and timber harvest are being used to ensure the regeneration of oak species.  In this stand, two prescribed fires occurred before a shelterwood harvest and one prescribed fire after harvest.The historical role of fire in shaping the composition and structure of oak forests in the eastern United States is increasingly being accepted. There is evidence that fires in the Central Appalachians occurred at intervals of 5 to 15 years during the previous four centuries, and evidence of reoccurring fires also predates European contact in the eastern United States. However, the modern application of prescribed fire to sustain and regenerate oak and other tree species raises many questions for the forest manager. Fire frequency, intensity and integration with other silvicultural practices are just a few of the variables that may affect the role of prescribed fire in influencing forest composition, so many questions remain about how to use  prescribed fire to achieve oak management goals. 

Our Research

Our research is focused on two different studies. The first study, initiated in 2000, involves the use of a prescribed fire following a shelterwood harvest combined with deer-exclosure fencing to release small oak seedlings from faster growing competition. We are also studying the effects of prescribed fire on the seed bank, small mammals, weevils that destroy oak acorns, reptiles and amphibians, as well as other resources when opportunities arise. In this study, prescribed fire is part of a silvicultural system in which the value of timber products is important. As such, some of our current work has incorporated estimates of damage and value lost from the use of prescribed fire. Our second and more recent prescribed fire study looks at the effects of larger and more intense prescribed fires on bat habitat quality. Anecdotal evidence suggests that day roost habitat can be significantly altered by fires that deaden overstory trees and reduce stocking. After just two prescribed fires, we have documented that bats, including the endangered Indiana bat, choose trees to roost in during the day that have been impacted by fire. Overall, our research strives to better understand the ecosystem response to prescribed fire. 

Expected Outcomes

In the past few years, National Forest management plans from West Virginia to Missouri have been modified to include oak restoration objectives. National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, state lands, and even some larger private landowners also are attempting to use prescribed fire to restore and enhance oak forests. Our research will provide guidelines for using prescribed fire, and provide insight into other ecosystem-level effects. Our research also will be included in a region-wide study of prescribed fire effects on forests.

Research Results

Wiedenbeck, Janice K.; Brown, John P.; Schuler, Thomas M.; Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa. 2017. Tree-quality impacts associated with use of the shelterwood-fire technique in a central Appalachian forest. In: Kabrick, John M.; Dey, Daniel C.; Knapp, Benjamin O.; Larsen, David R.; Shifley, Stephen R.; Stelzer, Henry E., eds. Proceedings of the 20th Central Hardwood Forest Conference; 2016 March 28-April 1; Columbia, MO. General Technical Report NRS-P-167. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 146-156.

Fenwick, M. Adele; Schuler, Jamie L.; Grushecky, Shawn; Schuler, Thomas, M.; Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa A. 2016. First year sprouting and growth dynamics in response to prescribed fire in a mesic mixed-oak forest. In: Proceedings of the 18th biennial southern silvicultural research conference. e-Gen. Tech. Rep. SRS-212. Asheville, NC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station: 219-225.

Mahoney, Kathleen R.; Russell, Kevin R.; Ford, W. Mark; Rodrigue, Jane L.; Riddle, Jason D.; Schuler, Thomas M.; Adams, Mary Beth. 2016. Woodland salamander responses to a shelterwood harvest-prescribed burn silvicultural treatment within Appalachian mixed-oak forests. Forest Ecology and Management. 359: 277-285.

Wiedenbeck, Janice K.; Schuler, Thomas M. 2014. Effects of prescribed fire on the wood quality and marketability of four hardwood species in the central Appalachian region. In: Groninger, John W.; Holzmueller, Eric J.; Nielsen, Clayton K.; Dey, Daniel C., eds. Proceedings, 19th Central Hardwood Forest Conference; 2014 March 10-12; Carbondale, IL. General Technical Report NRS-P-142. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 202-212.

Schuler, Thomas M.; Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa; Adams, Mary Beth; Ford, W. Mark. 2013. Analysis of two pre-shelterwood prescribed fires in a mesic mixed-oak forest in West Virginia. In: Miller, Gary W.; Schuler, Thomas M.; Gottschalk, Kurt W.; Brooks, John R.; Grushecky, Shawn T.; Spong, Ben D.; Rentch, James S., eds. Proceedings, 18th Central Hardwood Forest Conference; 2012 March 26-28; Morgantown, WV; Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-117. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 430-446.

Hessl, Amy E.; Saladyga, Tom; Schuler, Thomas; Clark, Peter; Wixom, Joshua. 2011. Fire history from three species on a central Appalachian ridgetop. Canadian Journal of Forest Research. 41: 2031-2039.

Ford, W. Mark; Rodrigue, Jane L.; Rowan, Ella L.; Castleberry, Steven B.; Schuler, Thomas M. 2010. Woodland salamander response to two prescribed fires in the central Appalachians. Forest Ecology and Management. 260: 1003-1009.

Schuler, Thomas M.; Thomas-Van Gundy, Melissa, Adams, Mary B.; Ford, W. Mark.  2010. Seed bank response to prescribed fire in the central Appalachians. Res. Pap. NRS-9. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station. 9 p. 

Nowacki, G.; Ablutz, M.; Yaussy, D.; Schuler, T.; Dey, D.  2009.  Restoring oak ecosystems on National Forest system lands: an adaptive management approach.  In: Hutchinson, Todd, ed. Proceedings of the 3rd Fire in Eastern Oak Forests Conference.  GTR-NRS-P-46.  Newtown Square: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station:  133-139.

Yaussy, D.A.; Nowacki, G.J.; Schuler, T.M.; Dey, D.C.; DeGayner, E.J.  2008.  Developing a unified monitoring and reporting system: a key to successful restoration of mixed-oak forests throughout the central hardwood region.  In: Deal, Robert L., ed. Proceedings, 2007 National Silviculture Workshop: Integrated Restoration of Forested Ecosystems to Achieve Multi-Resource Benefits.  PNW-GTR-733. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station: 281-286.

Pomp, J.A.; McGill, D.W.; Schuler, T.M. 2008.  Investigating the relationship between bole scorch height and fire intensity variables in the Ridge and Valley physiographic province, West Virginia.  In: Jacobs, Douglas F.; Michler, Charles H., eds. Proceedings, 16th Central Hardwood Forest Conference; 2008 April 8-9; Lafayette, IN.  Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-24.  Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 506-515.

Thomas-Van Gundy, M.T.; Nowacki, G.J.; Schuler, T.M.  2007.  Rule-based mapping of fire adapted vegetation and fire regimes for the Monongahela National Forest.  Gen. Tech. Rep.  NRS-12.  Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.  24 p.

Schuler, T.M.; McClain, W.R.  2003.   Fire history of a Ridge and Valley oak forest. Research Paper NE-274.  Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station.  9 p.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Thomas M. Schuler, USDA-Forest Service- Northern Research Station – Supervisory Research Forester
  • Melissa Thomas-Van Gundy, USDA-Forest Service, Northern Research Station – Research Forester
  • Jan Wiedenbeck, USDA-Forest Service, Northern Research Station – Supervisory Research Forest Products Technologist

Research Partners

  • Last modified: June 4, 2018