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Be Safe Out There! — Understanding Prescribed Fires on PA State Game Lands

DiscoverNEPA is all about celebrating Northeastern Pennsylvania’s abundant and vibrant natural spaces. We want you to get outside, relax and unwind in the mountain air, among the towering trees, along the crystal-clear lakes and streams. We just want to make sure everyone enjoys these places safely and respectfully.

That’s why we’re teaming up with state agencies, local conservation authorities and outdoor enthusiasts to bring you expert advice, tips and so much more to help you enjoy NEPA’s great outdoors.

Using Prescribed Fires to Keep Our Forests, Grasslands and Shrublands Healthy

The Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) has more than 1.5 million acres of State Game Lands throughout the Commonwealth that is managed specifically for wildlife and wildlife habitat to promote hunting and trapping opportunities for both residents and nonresidents alike. Fire is one way in which the PGC properly manages these lands. The PGC is responsible for all prescribed fires conducted on State Game Lands. The agency employs, more than 200 habitat management staff, which include foresters and land managers, many of whom participate on burn crews as one of their many duties. The PGC often partners with organizations like the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC), among others, which allows more burns to be accomplished across all lands.


Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Game Commission


A prescribed fire, or prescribed burn, is an organized, coordinated effort that works to apply fire at the right place, at the right time, and at the right intensity to improve the health and resilience of forests, grasslands, and shrublands. Very different from a wildfire, a prescribed fire is planned months, sometimes even years, in advance. The burns are conducted under precise weather conditions by trained crews. Wildfires on the other hand, are unplanned fires that occur during extreme conditions, which can pose threats to public safety and cause damage to our natural resources.

What does fire do to promote a healthy habitat for wildlife? Fire improves habitat and hunting opportunities by increasing soft mass production in shrubs like blueberry, huckleberry, and blackberry. They rejuvenate succulent browse plants preferred by deer and elk, which promotes oak habitats, and their vitally important acorns, and maintains grasses and broadleaf plants sought by brooding turkeys and grouse. Prescribed burns also reduce the severity of unplanned wildfires by removing leaves, thick grasses, and forest debris that accumulate without regular fire.


Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Game Commission


Prescribed fire can be conducted throughout the year, depending on the ecological objectives. In Pennsylvania, most burns take place in March, April, May, and November when grass is dormant and leaves are off, allowing sunlight and wind to dry the forest floor. While weather conditions and dryness are the primary factors for scheduling, the Game Commission also considers potential impacts to plants and animals, particularly those listed as “threatened” or “endangered” and adjusts burn timing accordingly to reduce conflicts.

Immediately after the burn, the ground will be black until regrowth occurs, which typically takes place within a few days, in some cases several weeks, depending on the time of year. Mature trees are left standing and are typically not impacted by the fire, (unless that is the desired effect). Mid-level vegetation is often left standing, but is often top-killed by the fire, meaning the stem is dead but will resprout from the roots. These resprouts provide valuable browse for wildlife. The increased light provided from knocking back small saplings and brush coupled with reduction in leaf litter or grass will greatly enhance opportunities for new species to grow, particularly native grasses and forbs (herbaceous flowering plants).


Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania Game Commission


The Game Commission maintains a map for the public that shows where prescribed burns are being planned. The map is updated seasonally and will also show “Burn Imminent” status when a burn date has been confirmed. These decisions to commence a controlled burn are highly weather dependent and therefore cannot be made more than a few days in advance. In addition to maps, State Game Lands users will see signage posted around the burn unit identifying the area as a planned burn during the coming weeks or months.

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