February 2013
Outdoor Life

Creating Multi-Purpose Fire Lines


John Knighten (left) and Ben Norman look over a map of the area where fire lanes are being constructed. Opposite, fire lanes make excellent shooting lanes for deer hunters.

Permanent fire lines not only stop wildfires, they can serve as roads, shooting lanes and food plots for wildlife.

If you have ever fought a forest fire with a pine top, shovel or flap, you have a deeper appreciation for a well-constructed fire line than someone who has never stood in front of a roaring inferno consuming everything in its path.

Fire lines, often called fire lanes or firebreaks, are usually constructed with a bulldozer pushing vegetation or pulling a forestry plow in a manner to remove the fuel from a strip of land preventing the fire from continuing to burn. Most fire lines constructed in the early days of forestry management were narrow, plowed strips that served their purpose, but often caused erosion problems. Today, all permanent fire lines are constructed with a dozer blade. When possible, the Alabama Forestry Commission even uses the dozer blade to push temporary fire lines because it is more environmentally friendly than the fire plow, especially on steep slopes.

Fire lines are basically of two types: the one put in quickly to head off a wildfire and the permanent type. Permanent lines not only protect timber and other property from wildfires, they are a great asset to sportsmen and land managers. With a little extra expense, a fire line can be constructed to serve as a permanent road providing access to remote areas of a property that would be hard to reach otherwise. Hunters benefit from a permanent fire line also. Many fire lines provide a straight shooting lane for several hundred yards. Permanent fire lines can also be utilized as food plot strips.

Above, Ben Norman (left) and John Knighten discuss building water bars to minimize erosion. Right, steep slopes like this one should be planted in grass immediately after construction.


John Knighten, a forestry specialist with the Alabama Forestry Commission, is a recognized authority on fire line construction.

"Permanent fire lines are a real asset to the land owner or leasee. You can use them as roads to keep check on your timber and property lines, as a recreation road for four-wheeling, and, where you have a good backstop, they are ideal for sighting in your rifle and for recreational shooting. I really recommend going to the extra expense of putting in permanent fire lines with properly constructed water bars. Water bars are long mounds of dirt constructed to prevent soil erosion and water pollution by diverting drainage from a road or skid trail into a filter strip. Many permanent fire lines can be traveled on two-wheel drive vehicles in decent weather," Knighten explained.

Ben Norman (left) shows Forestry Specialist John Knighten where to construct fire lines.


"The Alabama Forestry Commission is much more concerned with water quality and other environmental factors today than they were 30 years ago. Today, we put in water bars and turnouts to divert water out of the fire line/forestry road to prevent erosion. Especially on steep slopes, it is a must to have a properly constructed water bar and turn out to carry the water off the road."

Fire line maintenance after construction is also important.

"Most permanent fire lines can be maintained with a medium-size farm tractor using a rotary cutter, disk and box blade. Fire lines will be taken over by native vegetation if they are not bush hogged or disked. A box blade is excellent for maintaining water bars. With time, the water bar will get smaller due to erosion and the box blade can be used to pull soil back onto the water bar and divert the water into the turn out. We recommend planting permanent fire lines in some type of vegetation after they are constructed and the controlled burn is completed. Ryegrass is good for a fall and early winter planting, and Bahia grass is good for the spring planting, especially on steep slopes. One may want to consider wildlife plantings, also. They can contact the Alabama Department of Conservation or the county Extension service for recommendations on liming, fertilizing and seeding."

Knighten is quick to point out that the primary reason for constructing a fire line is either to contain the fire on your land during a controlled burn or to prevent a wildfire from coming onto your land from adjoining lands.


Crenshaw County Forester Jeremy Lowery starts a controlled burn from a recently constructed fire line.

"While we do recommend establishing a vegetative cover to prevent erosion, this can be counter-productive when it comes to stopping a wildfire. If you establish a good vegetative cover, it is a good idea to disk it up good prior to the primary fire season, usually early fall and again prior to March. March can be a secondary fire season partly because of the high winds this time of the year. Grasses like Bahia can be disked well enough to prevent a fire from crossing the fire line, but it will come back out and establish a good root system in the spring," Knighten added.

With the ever-increasing interest in wildlife management and hunting, Knighten is seeing more and more permanent fire lines constructed and used to enhance wildlife. While food plots are probably planted more for deer than any other species, turkey and quail benefit from permanent fire lines also. Young turkey polts and baby quail depend heavily on insects during this stage of their life. Fire lines provide ideal "bugging areas" for these ground-feeding birds.

According to Knighten, stream crossings can present a challenge to landowners establishing permanent fire lines.

"Each crossing should be considered on an individual basis. Sometimes it is better to put in a pipe and slant the stream banks at an appropriate angle. Other cases call for making a ford using clean demolition material such as flat pieces of concrete placed in the bottom of small streams. Sometimes a small bridge may be the best bet. Whatever stream crossing system the landowner is considering, he should make sure it is in compliance with Alabama’s Best Management Practices for Forestry," Knighten recommended.

So, if the cross-country hike to the back 40 is getting longer and the bones ache more than they used to after the trip, consider establishing a permanent fire line/road system and you can just drive there next time.

Ben Norman is a writer from Highland Home.