December 22, 1999 | By: Aimee D. Heald
LEXINGTON, KY

Kentucky's forest fires are no longer burning. But the heat may still be felt by landowners in their future financial picture. The Kentucky Division of Forestry reported more than 120,000 acres of timber have burned in Kentucky this year.

"Right now the fires are out," Laurie Taylor, forestry specialist at the University of Kentucky's Robinson Experiment Station in Jackson, Ky., said. "A lot of people don't think about it until the fire season rolls around again next year, but long-term damage and degradation results in economic loss for landowners."

More than 73,000 acres burned since November 10 and 1999 was the worst fire-year in more than a decade. Fire crews from as far away as Arizona joined fire fighters from Kentucky. The cost to fight the forest fires in Kentucky this fall are estimated to be in the millions of dollars. You may have read about the direct costs, the extended work days of the workers, and the countless acres that were burned from fires suspected of being intentionally set by arsonists.

"The largest majority of the fires could have been prevented," Doug McLaren, UK College of Agriculture forestry specialist, said. In the spring, new foliage will appear on many of the burned areas. Forest fires in Kentucky are not like the all-consuming fires in pine stands reported from western and southern states. Due to the volatility of pines, the complete tree is burned and lost. The loss is immediate and easily measured.

In northern hardwoods, like those of oak and yellow-poplar found in Kentucky, the base of the tree is damaged, but not killed. These losses are not easily measured in dollars to the landowner. So, the tree is still alive, and will be for many decades, but the monetary value of the tree continues to decrease if the landowner allows damaged trees to remain after a forest fire.

"Hardwood trees in Kentucky are very valuable," McLaren said. "A lot of people don't understand the ground fires we have are actually doing a tremendous amount of damage. In the short term, some trees are killed. In long term, trees are damaged at the base and over the years the internal damage is building up and economically these trees are going to be less valuable."

As responsible stewards of the land, we would not intentionally over-graze a pasture that would place a stress on the livestock's health. Nor would we grow row crops without first bringing the soil chemistry to its proper levels. The same should be implied for timber crops. The crop of trees in the forest that have been fire damaged are decreasing in monetary value and should be evaluated by a professional forester.

Countless acres of timber in Kentucky have been burned not only once, but several times, and are still allowed to be maintained while at the same time losing monetary value. In contrast, unburned acres of timber, when mature, in all probability, will be returning thousands of dollars more to the land owner than those acres that have been burned. Loggers, when attempting to identify stands to initiate forest operations, most likely will turn away from stands that have evidence of fire history and go to stands that have not been burned.

Foresters know the potential monetary damage that is influenced by forest fires in Kentucky's timber. The hope of the foresters who fought these fires is that timber owners will initiate the necessary forest operations in stands affected by fires. Forest management operations after a fire will improve both the future health and potential dollar value.

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Writer: Aimee D. Heald 606-257-9764 Source: Doug McLaren 606-257-2703