Prescribed Fires in Wetland Habitats

A NextGen Blog by Samantha Houck, Radford University

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Samantha Hooke is a recent graduate of Radford University. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology with a focus in Environmental Studies, a minor in Communications, and a certificate in Environmental Studies and Sustainability. Samantha has always loved the outdoors and is passionate about preserving it for future generations to enjoy. 

Wetlands not only provide habitat for countless species, but also offer protection against floods and provide water quality maintenance.[mfn]National Wetlands Inventory[/mfn] The US Department of Forestry defines a wetland by three features: hydrophytic vegetation, hydric soils and water within several centimeters of the soil surface for a part of the year.[mfn]EPA[/mfn] Prior to the 1960’s, the value of wetlands was not fully understood, instead they were filled to make room for housing projects, industrial facilities and landfill dumps. Today, wetlands are recognized for the many values they possess, including benefiting fish and terrestrial wildlife, water quality and the economy.[mfn]National Wetlands Inventory[/mfn]

Benefits of Prescribed Fires

Fire is an important management tool for growth and species reduction in many ecosystems. Historically, fire has been a tool used by Indigenous Americans to control land and direct game to be hunted.[mfn]Battle J., Golladay S.[/mfn] Now, wetland habitats are burned for a variety of reasons, including reducing or removing invasive plant species, promoting growth of native grasses/herbs and reducing organic fuel material buildup. Periodic prescribed burns in wetlands reduces future fire intensity by burning away highly flammable organic material.

Prescribed fire with helitorch in Oregon by BLM Oregon & Washington, courtesy of Creative Commons

Plant and animal species respond to fire in a variety of ways. Most native grasses rely on fire to control growth. Amphibians and reptiles have developed ways to respond to fire through adaptations or by escaping the burn.[mfn]Russell K., Van Lear D., Guynn D.[/mfn] Several turtle species burrow under the soil to escape the fire. Waterfowl reap the benefits of prescribed burns by using the exposed cover for breeding grounds and foraging.[mfn]Conner L., Block W.[/mfn] A study of salamanders was analyzed and found that prescribed fire had little to no negative implications for mature salamanders, but could potentially have an impact on larval stage salamanders.

Prescribed fire was thought to have an impact on water chemistry in wetlands due to runoff and leaching of nutrients out of the soil after a burn. In Southwestern Georgia, a study was carried out to better understand the relationship between longleaf pine wire grass and prescribed burns crucial for its continued growth. The study analyzed water chemistry impacts from the burn and found negative impacts on water chemistry from the burn.[mfn]Battle J., Golladay S.[/mfn]

Threats of Prescribed Fires

Unlike prescribed burns in most other habitats, water is very close to burn sites in a wetland. When possible water contamination is imminent, it is important to understand the effects of various chemicals being leached out of the soil. Nitrogen and phosphorus were among the highest chemical compounds found in burned soil at wetlands. The smoldering of soil in a wetland is of high concern due to its ability to smolder for days or months after a burn.[mfn]Watts A., Schmidt C., McLaughlin D., and Kaplan D.[/mfn] This could cause combustion of neighboring grasses, which could lead to another unplanned fire and cause complications with smoke hindering visibility in neighboring areas.

Prescribed fire for sagebrush habitat restoration, courtesy of Creative Commons

Wetlands smolder due to the organic peat layers that build up over decades. This layer of decayed grasses and plant matter is highly flammable. It is important to set a prescribed burn on wetland habitats frequently so that a buildup of highly flammable fuels does not lead to a highly intense fire with a lightning strike. Precautions must be taken to reduce ensuing negative fire complications.


Wetlands are highly diverse habitats that host a variety of life forms. It is possible to carry out prescribed burns in wetlands and they can be carried out in frequent rotations to promote growth and life within a wetland. While some negative aspects of burning do occur, overall prescribed burns are crucial to the continued functioning of a wetland. Without a prescribed burn, decayed plant material will continue to build up and will lead to a highly intense fire. A fire with such intensity would have more negative implications on wetlands habitat than a prescribed burn.


Battle J., Golladay S., (2003). Prescribed Fire’s Impact on Water Quality of Depressional Wetlands in Southwestern Georgia. The American Midland Naturalist, 150(1), 15-25.

Conner L., Block W. Effects of Prescribed Fire on Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat in Selected Ecosystems of North America. Available from:

National Wetlands Inventory (1984) Wetlands of the United States: Current Status and Recent

Russell K., Van Lear D., Guynn D., (1999). Prescribed Fire Effects on Herpetofauna: Review and Management Implications. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 27(2), 374-384.

Watts A., Schmidt C., McLaughlin D., and Kaplan D. (2015) Hydrologic Implications of Smoldering Fires in Wetland Landscapes. Freshwater Science, 34(4): 1394-1405

What is a Wetland? (2018, June 12). Retrieved from wetland

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