Longtime residents along South Lee Highway are accustomed to annual prescribed burns in the early spring. Newer residents who travel between Cleveland and Hamilton County may not know the purpose of controlled burns.
Bendabout Farms Manager Matt Bentley said the farm encompasses about 4,000 acres and about 2,000 acres are burned by detailed written prescriptions each spring between February and April before the spring growing season and nesting season.
A typical burn occurs between noon and 5 p.m. and covers 500 to 600 acres a day. A plowed band or a green area that won’t burn sets the burn boundaries. The easiest way to recognize Bendabout property is the white no trespassing signs.
Passersby often mistakenly report a controlled fire to 9-1-1, which triggers an emergency response. The number of emergency vehicles traveling South Lee Highway, Old Chattanooga Pike, Old Alabama Road and Tunnel Hill Road increases the concern that someone could get hurt.
“A passerby might see a prescribed burn in progress in those areas,” he said. “They see the smoke or perhaps the fire itself, they panic and do what any person would do. They call 9-1-1,” he said.
“We get all the proper permits from the Tennessee Forest Service. Then we call the local fire department and we call the 9-1-1 non-emergency number to notify them we are burning and where. Even though they do that, when they start getting calls about our prescribed burning, they have to dispatch.”
Generally, someone working the fire is visible from the roadway. They may be on an ATV, in a pickup or on foot. The farm manager stressed that no fire is unattended.
“They may not be visible to someone driving down the road,” he said. “If you don’t see someone standing by the fire, don’t feel obligated to stop and help because we don’t want anyone to get run over.”
Bentley said the weather is the major factor that goes into writing a prescription for a controlled burn. Other factors include the amount of fuel and topography.
“The wind direction, how many days since a rain, the relative humidity, the wind speed and what’s most important for us is smoke management,” he said. “We’re looking for days when the mixing height where the smoke goes up into the upper level. We want that mixing height to be really high. We want the mixing height to be about 3,500 feet.”
Also, if they are burning on the north side of South Lee Highway, Bentley wants a southern wind to keep the smoke off the road.
“Those are the issues we’re particular about when selecting a good day for a prescribed burn,” he said.
He said prescribed burns control vegetation to promote growth of open piney woodlands with grass and herbaceous plants forming the foliage layer (foliage understory) beneath and shaded by the main canopy of a forest. The understory is maintained through prescribed burning.
Prescribed burns remove the litter layer of pine needles and kills spouting hardwoods. Hardwoods, he said, cannot stand frequent prescribed fire. On the other hand, pine trees have a thick, corky-type layer of bark for protection.
“Pine trees do well with prescribed burning. This is not a result of us in the last 20 years. This is the result of mother nature with lightning strike fires,” he said. “Mother nature used to burn the landscape in this area quite often. There were no highways, big lakes or anything to stop fires.”
He said once lightning ignited a fire, it would spread across the landscape and keep a large area in this part of the country in grassy understory.
“It was almost like a prairie with scattered pine trees in it,” he said. “In the 1930s when Smoky the Bear (now called Smoky Bear) became popular, prescribed burning or fire itself became taboo. It was considered destructive and we still see the results out West where they are not using fire.”
Litter builds up season after season, the litter builds and when ignited by accident, arson or lightning, it creates a difficult fire to control or extinguish. Houses built in rural areas make it more difficult to suppress a wildfire.
“Our burns do several things for us. It manages the vegetation for a variety of wildlife species that depend on that type of habitat,” he said.
A variety of animals, birds and reptiles depend on the short groundcover, but that type of habitat continues to shrink because much of the land is covered by dense forest where the floor is covered with leaves and no grasses. Then there is non-native fescue pasture.
“None of those provide the kind of habitat the wildlife needs in this area,” Bentley said. “By using controlled burning, we’re providing a lot of herbaceous plants that produce seed and we’re providing a lot of summer grasses that provides nesting cover and escape cover. We’re also perpetuating this conifer or pine tree forest because we’re not allowing hardwoods to grow up inside these forests.