December 21, 2005 | By: Terri McLean

Come springtime, the 52,000 acres of Kentucky forests that burned in 2005 will show few signs of destruction. But the damage is there and it’s likely to create problems for years to come, said Doug McLaren, Extension forestry specialist with the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

“The reason we’re concerned about forest fires is what you can’t see,” McLaren said. “The fires in Kentucky usually burn close to the ground and, normally, do not kill the trees. The following spring the trees will leaf out again, giving the indication that no harm is done. To the contrary; forest fires cause damage to trees throughout their life-span, even if there are no obvious signs.”

Every year, fires in Kentucky burn thousands of acres of private forest land. Unlike in the western United States, where massive fires devastate entire landscapes, Kentucky’s forest fires rarely create such “absolute destruction,” McLaren said. But Kentucky’s forest fires create their own unique set of problems – especially for the forest landowners who provide timber for the state’s $4.6 billion timber industry. 

“The real issue with forest fires in Kentucky is the future dollar value lost in the trees,” McLaren said. “These fires create damage to the trees’ stems, which creates an entrance court for pathogens of all sorts – fungi, insects – to work their way into the trees. So the value of the timber from that point on tends to go down.” 

According to McLaren, trees that survive a forest fire may lose up to 50 percent of their value. The damage caused may include something as simple as staining or as serious as advanced rotting of the wood.

“Even if they are able to sell their timber, the value of the timber will be greatly diminished if a logger finds evidence of fire in a stand, even decades after a fire,” McLaren said.

Kentucky has two forest fire seasons – Feb. 15 through April 30 and Oct. 1 through Dec. 15. Despite fears that lack of rainfall and low humidity would make the year 2005 a bad one for forest fires, the 52,000 acres of private forest land that burned was considered “normal,” McLaren said.

“But we had 52,000 acres burn this year, we had 52,000 acres burn last year and the year before and the year before. So what happens is it’s not the same acres being burned year after year. It’s new acres. Essentially, the entire state of Kentucky, at one time or another will be affected by fire,” he added.

Adding to the problem is the fact that most of the fires could have been prevented. Statistics recently released by the Kentucky Division of Forestry showed a little more than 1,000 forest fires in 2005 were arson-related, while more than 400 were the result of burning debris that got out of control.

“We do not have fires that are created by lightening or some natural cause,” McLaren said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of fires are caused by human intervention.”

Educating people about the detrimental effects of forest fires may be one of the few ways to lessen the problem. However, McLaren wonders if the “So what?” philosophy regarding Kentucky forest fires will ever abate.

“When people see an area that has been burned greening out in the spring, they wonder what the problem is,” McLaren said. “But it is a problem and will continue to be until we realize the damage forest fires cause.”


Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Doug McLaren, 859-257-2703