ISSUED: 2-84
Douglas J. McLaren, Department of Forestry, University of Kentucky

The leading cause of wildfires in Kentucky is unsafe debris burning--fires accidentally escaping from burning garbage, trash or plant materials. Annually, an estimated one out of every 75 Kentucky woodland owners face fire on their property. Kentucky has averaged over 2,000 forest fires each year for the past 35 years with an estimated 80,000 acres burned annually.
The critical effect of these fires is the decline in timber quality due to fire damage. The damaged trees fall prey to insects and disease that gain entrance through fire scars. Quality losses from these fires average 60 percent of the timber's value and may run as high as 75 percent.

Spring Fires
Approximately 75 percent of Kentucky's forest fires occur in the spring, Many of these spring fires are started by landowners to clear their fields or garden plots. Planting areas not properly prepared the previous fall present problems in the spring with dry, standing corn stalks, weeds and other debris that interfere with cultivation. A common solution is to burn the debris.
Besides creating a fire hazard, burning this plant material destroys organic matter that is valuable to crops. If left undisturbed, this organic matter would:
1.Help bind soil particles together, forming air spaces between particles which improve water drainage through the soil;
2.Act like a sponge to improve the water-holding capacity of excessively drained soils and aeration of poorly drained soils;
3.Release nutrients which would feed crop plants;
4.Help sustain soil organisms which contribute to healthy plant biochemical processes in the soil.

Residue Management
It is possible to avoid burning when managing crop residue. At the end of the fall harvesting season, use a lawn mower on small garden plots to shred the debris and bring it in contact with the soil. You can also rake and compost the material. Use a tiller on small gardens and disk larger fields to help incorporate materials into the soil for better decomposition, Sowing a cover crop which will be incorporated into the soil in the spring will prevent serious soil loss.
Corn stalks, if cut in the late fall to make contact with the soil, will incorporate easily into the soil the following spring. They can also be piled for compost.
With proper maintenance in the fall, you can drastically reduce springtime debris burning. This reduction could prevent numerous forest fires, help ensure the existing quality of our timberlands, and actually improve the quality of our croplands.