One could argue that controlled burning as a management technique releases CO2 in the atmosphere, as well as other gases which are produced by burning of the biomass. However, controlled burning has positive effects that can reduce the damage and negative effects of wildfires, which are uncontrolled, can spread in unreachable terrain, and usually occur in spring and summer season. Such wildfires are dangerous because they burn deep layers of humus that store large amounts of carbon, and can harm a number of wild animals which are unable to escape the fire and secure their young.
Therefore, controlled burning is a recognized and worldwide used method for grassland management, and is becoming a standard practice in legal documents as a recommended method for habitat management.
In the Mediterranean and Submediterranean region, climate and environment factors are bound to produce wildfires, and their occurrence is highly anticipated in the summer period. Active management of mosaic habitats, such as agricultural land, vineyards, olive groves, and woodlands are beneficial for reducing the potential spread and speed of wildfires. Additionally, those habitats are helping the fire prevention because a large portion of area is accessible for firefighters and firefighting equipment and machinery.
Unfortunately, the public is unaware of the importance of open habitats and related benefits. The public is concerned about the wildfire damages, which is positive, but there are a number of organized volunteer activities, which are supposed to mitigate wildfire damages, but their effects are questionable. Such activities are organized to plant a large number of pines, which will sooner or later be caught in a wildfire, and will pose a damage for nature, people and their property. Rethinking such activities and changing them into management of mosaic habitats with grassland is a much more effective alternative and would bring multiple benefits for wildlife protection.
Grazing is an additional nature-friendly solution which reduces wildfire damages. In overgrown terrain grazing is used in combination with other techniques such as manual removal of unwanted vegetation and controlled burning. The proximity of active shepherds is taken in consideration for selecting areas for controlled burning,which are a part of the project. The combination of grazing and controlled burning produces long term positive effects for grasslands, which stops and in some cases even reverse the succession of unwanted vegetation.
Finally, the time has come to monitor the effects of controlled burning on the selected surface on Vrdovo plateau. We pre-determined our check points, in order to avoid bias in our research, and we proceeded to check the condition of the burned area as well as the difference between that and the adjacent area that we did not burn in a prescribed burn. The important elements of this research were what impact the fire had on woody plants, ie whether there was any impact at all.
We recorded data on the species and number of woody plants and whether, for example, only the bark was partially burner, or the trunk was partially damaged, or the trunk was dead but the plant continued to regenerate from the root or stump, or the trunk was dead and the plant was not regenerating. For herbaceous plants, the process was similar, also listing all species and numbers and determining whether the plant is dead due to controlled burning, partially dead and partially regenerating, or fully regenerating normally. The last element checked was the effect the controlled burning had on the soil, ie whether organic matter was partially or completely burned due to prescribed burn, whether humus also burned, and whether bare soil remained.
For woody species, we found that the effect on shrubby plants such as Rhamnus intermedius and Prunus mahaleb was significant and that the most of the aboveground stems burned, but we also noticed that a large number continued to regenerate from the stump or root. The impact on low woody flowering plants important for bees and other insects, such as various species of Satureja, Genista and Teucrium, was very small and even those that were significantly damaged, had been recovering normally. Also, as space was opened for them to grow due to the burned bushes, they spread more than on the unburned plot we used as a control plot.
Herbaceous plants such as various species of Carex, Sesleria, Stipa or Koeleria are mostly regenerating normally even if a part of the sod has burned. Numerous flowering species such as Globularia, Eryngium, Dorycnium or Helianthemum were not affected by controlled burning, it had rather opened up space for them to spread.
The effect of winter-time fire to the soil was that the parts and sometimes most of the non-decomposed organic matter on the soil surface had burned. We did not however notice that the fire penetrated deeper into the soil and destroyed humus, as is regularly the case during summer-time fires.
This research proves that if we conduct controlled burn in the colder part of the year in strictly controlled conditions, it has a positive impact on the preservation of grassland habitats and the spread of plant species important for feeding the livestock and wild animals, as well as on flowering plants important for bees.
At the end of February our team implemented the first restoration activity at the project site. Controlled burning was performed on 6 hectares of overgrown grasslands at Dinara mountain.
Restoration activities of “Dinara back to LIFE” project are scheduled to start in the second year of implementation. First such activity, controlled burning, was performed at the end of the last week. Since it is an activity which has to be implemented in the cold period of the year, it was selected as the first one. The goal of controlled burning is to use it to remove unwanted wooden vegetation which is overtaking the grasslands.
In the beginning of February the project team published an article “13 questions about controlled burning”, as an announcement of the activity for the local community, answers for frequently asked questions, and open invitation for the community to further inform about the activity.
The weather conditions at the end of February were favorable for our activity, which was implemented 26.2. With coordination from the local firefighting unit and help from our volunteers, we managed to restore 6 hectares of overgrown grasslands. This experience was highly valuable for our team, as we plan to restore at least 100 hectares of overgrown grasslands by the end of the project. Implementation was also a testing activity for our team, as we learned about administrative and logistic requirements of the activity, which will help our work later on.
Controlled burning is a method we use to increase the quality of habitat for key species. In this case in Dinara mountain, it is used to improve the quality of habitat for Emberiza hortulana. This species often uses grasslands which were burned in previous years, and it’s habitat is endangered with overgrowing. The goal of our activity is to create favorable conditions for Emberiza hortulana on a larger surface, which will hopefully lead to an increase of it’s numbers.
Control and safety of the activity was guaranteed by the Public firefighting unit and 5 local firefighters. We would like to use this opportunity to express our gratitude once again for all of their advices and professionalism, and give a big thank you to our volunteers for supporting us and investing their energy, emotion and free time into nature conservation.
Don’t miss to check our photo gallery below with photos from the activity.
We can finally welcome the start of specific grasslandsrestoration activities within the project “Dinara back to LIFE”.
In the coming week, the implementation of controlled burning is planned on the pass towards Ravni Vrdovo (above Greda). It will be carried out for the purpose of grassland restoration and as the first of the restoration activities of the project “Dinara back to LIFE”.
Controlled burning will be carried out in cooperation and under the supervision of the Sinj Public Fire Brigade.
Controlled burning will be carried out no later than March 15, and only in favorable weather conditions, without wind, and with the permission of the Public Fire Service Sinj. The first field trip and the beginning of the activity is planned for February 17, if the conditions for the activity are favorable, according to the expert assessment of the firefighters. Otherwise it will be carried out on a different date, when the weather conditions are appropriate.
“Controlled burning is one of the fire protection measures. We are glad to participate in these activities so that together with the Dinara back to LIFE team we can contribute to the protection of nature, but also to the protection of human lives and property, “said Stipe Ančić, Commander of the Sinj Public Fire Brigade.
Controlled burning will be carried out as the first of the restoration activities of the project “Dinara back to LIFE”, implemented by the Biom Association, in partnership with Croatian Forests, LAG “Cetinska Krajina” and the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Zagreb.
In case you notice smoke from the afore mentioned locality [Map 1] on Wednesday, February 17, there is no reason to be upset as it is a coordinated action. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us by phone at 021/274 946, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Below we give answers to anything that might interest you about controlled burning. And if you have additional questions and want to know more, feel free to contact us!
1. Why can’t you maintain grasslands by grazing or mowing? Why is controlled burning really necessary?
Rocky grasslands, on which controlled burning will be carried out, cannot be mowed because the rocks prevent the use of any tool, from hand mowers to motor mowers. Of course, in the event that a grassland can be mowed, mowing is the preferred method of maintenance, but there are relatively few such grasslands in the project area. As cattle graze selectively, bypassing poisonous, prickly and inedible plant species, so over time such species become more and more abundant and need to be removed in some other way. In the past, such species were removed by hand, because there were many shepherds who removed them while keeping cattle. This area was also affected by the war, which, after many years of non-use and lack of grazing, a pronounced process of shrub encroachment on grasslands is underway and not only do we have to maintain them but first we have to restore their condition to the one they were in years ago, before the process of abandonment started. Burning is the simplest and fastest way of controlling the excessive spread of woody vegetation over larger areas.
2. Why do you want to burn grasslands and not allow them to develop naturally into forest? Should man make interventions in natural processes at all?
The Republic of Croatia has decided to integrate the management of Natura2000 Ecological Network areas, those that are located within forests and forest lands managed by Croatian Forests, with the forest management process, by developing forest management plans as Ecological Network management plans. The grasslands in question fall into the category of rare and endangered habitat type of the Eastern Adriatic Rocky Pasture of the Epimediterranean Zone, and are one of the conservation targets of this Natura 2000 area. In this case, controlled burning represents the active management od Natura 2000 areas with the aim of halting the loss of biological diversity in the Republic of Croatia.
Allowing natural processes without any intervention is a concept that today is successfully applied only to huge areas with all essential and well-preserved elements of nature. The concept proved wrong in other situations as it often caused extinction of rare species and habitats. European nature, which mostly has lost irreversibly many large animals that maintained habitats by grazing (such as terns, bison, mammoths), is largely well preserved because these animals have been replaced by domestic livestock. The disappearance of domestic livestock without the return of these large herbivores, will results in the conditional development of forest cover with a complete loss of grassland. Also, without grazing, a large amount of dry plant matter that burns easily develops, and fires become more intense. Today’s nature protection tries to achieve all the original diversity of habitats and species through management. A simple example that indicates we can no longer leave all processes to nature is the case were we should not put out naturally occurring fires. Although rare, without human intervention they would burn for days and through huge areas.
3. What do we want to achieve with controlled burning?
With controlled burning, we want to increase the quality of habitats for certain animal and plant species. In the case of the grassland on Vrdovo (above Bitelićka greda, Map 1), it is a strictly protected species garden bunting (Emberiza hortulana). Overgrowing of grasslands causes habitat loss for garden bunting, and this is a species that gladly inhabits recently burned areas as they have a structure of grasslands with sporadic trees. The existing population of garden bunting in this locality is present only on the area that was burned in previous years and we want to enable this population of garden bunting to increase its numbers by burning the neighbouring grassland areas that area affected by overgrowing of woody vegetation. In addition, burning will have a positive effect on pasture management and the increase the possibility of livestock grazing.
4. What is controlled burning? What is the difference between controlled and uncontrolled burning or fire?
In controlled burning, only the target areas under appropriate conditions are burned. In controlled burning within the project “Dinara back to LIFE” only overgrown grasslands are burned during the colder part of the year, when burning affects only the surface layer of the soil without causing deep damage. Areas for controlled burning are selected so as not to endanger forests or, in general, habitat types to which burning is harmful. In the case of uncontrolled burning or fire, areas for which burning is harmful (eg forests) get affected or, due to summer heat and drought, deep soil damage and erosion occur as a result of the fire.
5. What are the benefits of controlled burning?
Controlled burning, allows the management of a large area with a relatively small work effort, especially for habitats where other management methods are not feasible or cost-effective.
6. What are the risks of controlled burning?
The main risks of controlled burning are the spread of fire to areas that were not the intended for burning and the burning of deeper layers of the soil. Both of these risks are avoided by careful selection of the burning area, a large number of well-prepared participants and the appropriate choice of weather conditions during the controlled burning event.
7. What measures for control, risk mitigation and restriction will you implement?
Controlled burning will be carried out in cooperation with and under the supervision of the Sinj Public Fire Brigade. A filed inspection, carried out on 28th of January 2021, determined that on the selected area there are no problematic natural elements that can pose a danger due to the retention of smouldering fires (such as deep cracks or a deep layer of humus).
The area on which controlled burning is carried out have been selected so that it is partially surrounded by the area of non-overgrown rocky habitats, over which the fire cannot spread easily, which enables an easier human control of the fire.
Additional protection against the spread of fire will be provided by 2 – 4 meters wide paths in the role of fire routes, which partially border the areas where controlled burning is planned, through which the fire cannot spread.
The optimal number of firefighters in the field will be determined by the Sinj Public Fire Brigade through an expert assessment. Participants in the burning activities will be equipped with hand-held burners, and the fire brigade will take care of fire safety and control with appropriate firefighting equipment. The controlled burning activity will take place during daylight hours, and after the cessation of that activity, firefighters will continue to monitor the site until they estimate that the conditions ensure there is no smouldering fire left.
8. Who will carry out the controlled burning on the Dinara?
Controlled burning on Dinara is carried out as part of the “Dinara back to LIFE” project. The leading partner of the project is Biom Association, and the partnership involves Croatian Forests, the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Zagreb and the LAG “Cetinska Krajina”.
The Biom Association is in charge of carrying out restoration activities and is responsible for carrying out controlled burning on Dinara. The planning and implementation of activities is carried out with the help of all project partners, and with the support and supervision of the Sinj Public Fire Brigade.
9. What species will you burn? Why will you burn also species that can grow into trees?
On the area that we will burn, there are various woody species: oak, black hornbeam, black ash, juniper, dogwood, buckthorn, but they create a vegetation with a structure of rare shrubs. By burning in winter, we enable the survival of a large part of these individuals, especially larger and taller ones. In this area, our goal is not to achieve a habitat structure completely free of trees and shrubs, but to maintain a grassland with individual trees and shrubs, which is an ideal habitat for garden bunting, but also a more productive pasture.
10. Is controlled burning used elsewhere in Croatia or in the world?
Controlled burning is a very widespread measure implemented in a large number of countries, from Finland, Sweden, Norway, the United Kingdom, Spain, France to the United States and Australia. It is sometimes implemented as a measure for the management of pastures or grasslands, and sometimes as a measure that maintains mosaic structure and biodiversity in large forest areas. In Croatia, controlled burning is currently carried out only on relatively small areas in protected areas such as Krka or Kamenjak in Istria, but also on a large number of private land.
11. Fire produces large amounts of CO2. How do you justify releasing a large amount of CO2 into the atmosphere?
On Dinara, large areas are regularly (and uncontrollably!) burned by fire, which is why a huge amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. A particularly large amount is released during forest fires, and in summer fires when the roots of plants and the humus horizon of the soil burn. The long-term goal of the project is to prevent such large amounts of CO2 by grazing (which reduces the amount of dry plant matter) and controlled burning of small areas in winter, when only the surface layer of soil burns, resulting in significantly lower CO2 emissions.
12. Does fire harm wildlife, such as pigs and rabbits? What about the animals that live and feed here?
One of the reasons why controlled burning is carried out in winter in windless weather is that there are no young animals then, and adult individuals easily escape the fire which in winter is slowly spreading. Also, after this type of fire, the herbaceous vegetation is renewed with the first days of spring and the animals soon return to the burned areas in search of new, fresh pasture. Indeed, these type of pasture with lush herbaceous vegetation in renewal, offer species such as hare, even offer more food than the surrounding areas.
13. Can controlled burning be carried out in the Nature Park? Nature park is a category of protection that does not limit such activities, especially if they increase the quality of habitats for important species or habitats. One of the tasks of the Dinara Nature Park is to preserve open habitats and the species that live on them, and we hope that controlled burning will be carried out as an activity of the future manager of the Park area.
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