HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - For years we've heard how prescribed burns help keep lives and property safe by reducing the underbrush that fuel wildfires; however, officials at the USDA Forest Service say there is yet another purpose which is to provide better habit for wildlife.
In fact, the firefighters say some of the controlled burns underway now could be what keeps an endangered bird from going extinct. It's like government housing for birds.
The USDA Forest Service De Soto Ranger District made small holes in pine trees to encourage Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers to nest inside.
"Since Katrina, especially, they lost some of the cavities that they had. So what we're doing now and what we have been doing for quite a few years is putting inserts or artificial cavities," District Fire Management Officer Jay Boykin said. "It builds kind of an instant home for them and a place where they can get inside the pine at night and keep the predators like owls and things like that from getting them."
The De Soto Ranger District has 35 active colonies for the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker which is on the federal endangered species list.
"We don't have very many of these," said Boykin. "There's only a few left in the whole southeast United States. We're managing some of these areas just for their habitat or their habitat improvement."
Firefighters must do prescribed burns around the trees because they say if there's a lot of underbrush, the birds will fly away.
"It kind of decreases some of the predators that they have trouble with when we do the prescribed burns," Boykin said.
The key for firefighters is to figure out how to burn the brush but not the tree.
"The sap that runs down the tree from woodpecker hole burns really easy, catches on fire real easy, so that's why we have to take such care around them," Firefighter Bobby Iser said. "We come in here with mechanical tractors and bush hogs. We bush hog this whole area and somebody comes in with a rake and rakes around the tree. We carefully light around the tree with water on hand, so just in case, something happens we can put it out."
Forest Service officials say the prescribed burns help other wildlife as well.
"The wildlife here was here long before we were, and fire was here long before we were," said Boykin. "So all the wildlife has adapted to having fire in the ecosystem. Once we prescribe burn, it will almost immediately start sprouting back with fresh green vegetation."
Forest Service officials say they hope to hold controlled burns over 80,000 to 90,000 acres this year from Hattiesburg to the Coast.