Prescribed fire is one of the best conservation tools we have for maintaining forests that are healthy, resilient and less susceptible to drought, disease and pests. Collaborating with partners across the state, The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas’ fire program is dedicated to restoring and maintaining healthy forests and habitat. With the controlled application of fire, the Conservancy and partners are working to manage timberlands and restore native woodlands to their historic, open conditions to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, improve wildlife habitat and lessen the spread of forest diseases.
The Conservancy is also striving to create a culture of public acceptance and even demand for increased prescribed fire around the state.
Started in the early 1990s “on a shoestring,” the Arkansas fire program now leads the way within the Conservancy’s global prescribed fire program, sharing knowledge and techniques with local government and private partners, as well as beyond our borders – in other states and as far away as Zambia, Colombia and Mexico.
Since 2000, one million acres have been restored in Arkansas and another 400,000 are improving through the implementation of prescribed fire and silvicultural practices. The Conservancy’s goal is to reach 600,000 acres burned annually with our partners, which would result in 3.5 million acres of restored forested habitat in the next 4 to 6 years. Currently, the Arkansas fire community does not have the capacity to facilitate restoration on this scale.
In researching ways to increase prescribed burning capacity, the Conservancy has been closely following the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of ignition drones in other areas of the country. Drones are changing many industries today, proving to greatly increase productivity, and aerial ignition with helicopters has long been a key component of forestry management.
The fire team using drone technology was able to expand the burn unit size, so 500-acres or more can be burned in one operational period. Drone Amplified IGNIS system with a thermal lens gives the burn boss more real-time control during the fire with the ability to monitor large areas. They can also see the heat profile, study overstory mortality and survey the perimeter and burn coverage.
Since the TNC-Arkansas’ recent transition to controlled burning during a more historical growing season burn period, we are seeing more efficient control of undesirable woody shrubs, faster improved habitat and less need for herbicide applications. Unfortunately, the May to September timeframe presents new challenges with hotter temperatures and dryer conditions. Burn crew work is always physically demanding but with this season transition, extreme heat and humidity create even more grueling circumstances and fire crew exhaustion limits the window to burn. The Conservancy has found that utilizing drone technology creates less arduous conditions and reduces the crew’s interior time during hot months in rough terrain, ultimately increasing the number of burn days and the amount of acreage burned annually.
Aerial ignition and drone technology has become an essential tool in the field of fire management and habitat monitoring in Arkansas. The goal was to integrate the technology and work closely with partners to test these theories by studying the drone’s efficiency, effectiveness, safety and affordability in various habitats, fuel types and landscapes across Arkansas.
Drone ignition technology has revolutionized controlled burning in Arkansas and significantly increased effectiveness and outcomes. As with all conservation programs, the Conservancy maintains demonstration sites and works closely with partners and the public to interpret, teach, research and create a culture of public acceptance for prescribed fire.
The NWTF provided funding to The Nature Conservancy Arkansas for habitat restoration in the flatwood ecosystem of south Arkansas, which provided restoration for over 3,500 acres of high-quality habitat for wild turkey, while also providing habitat for the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Over the last two years, using drone ignition, in cooperation with NWTF funding, has allowed for larger burn units and fire operations at lower cost with better habitat impacts. In addition to this project, we are working closely with partners to monitor the effects of fire on wildlife and plants during the growing season for adaptive management on habitat restoration in Arkansas. The use of drones has also allowed for TNC Arkansas to map larger areas and use the information to rank habitat quality on a larger scale.
Including partners in this work has been key to the success, and TNC Arkansas will continue to create “technology in conservation” working groups. By collaborating, we have been able to address some of the hurdles associated with new technology. TNC is committed to continued work with conservation partners across all state, federal and private sectors to use the most forward-thinking restoration techniques to drive adaptive management.
Partnering organizations include Arkansas Division of Forestry, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Quail Forever, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the National Wild Turkey Federation.