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Photo contributed / Forest rangers use a fire torch to light a controlled fire during the prescribed fire season in the Cherokee National Forest.

Residents across the region this week and afterward might see smoke rising from purposely set fires in public forests, aimed at keeping the risk of wildfire low.

Officials want folks to know in most cases it's not a wildfire producing that smoke, but a controlled fire called a "prescribed burn," intended to get rid of wildfire fuel which comes in the form of deadwood, underbrush and leaf litter.

U.S. Forest Service officials in the Cherokee National Forest started prescribed burns last week in an effort to forestall wildfires and improve habitat for wildlife and forests, agency spokesperson Terry McDonald said.

"To some people the word fire creates visions of great devastation and waste. While this concept can be true of wildfires, it is the opposite with prescribed fires," McDonald said.

"Prescribed burns reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires by removing vegetation — fuel — that accumulates and creates a fire hazard," McDonald said. "Prescribed fire improves habitat for wildlife by opening the forest floor up to light and encouraging the growth of native grasses, blooming species and other plants that provide food and shelter for many species."

McDonald said prescribed fires reduce the types of vegetation that compete for light, moisture and nutrients, and they also reduce leaf litter that prevents seed germination of desirable tree and plant species.

The same work is going on at Little River Canyon National Preserve near Fort Payne, Alabama, where officials performed a test burn late last week and started prescribed burns over the weekend, park spokesperson Matthew Switzer said.

Drivers have been warned of temporary road closures and to use their headlights and drive slowly in smoky areas, Switzer said.

The Chattanooga region and much of the South were scorched by wildfires during a drought in 2016 that sparked blazes in the Cherokee National Forest and the preserve at Little River Canyon, on Signal Mountain and Flipper Bend on Walden's Ridge. During the drought of 2016, the Little River in DeKalb County, Alabama, ran dry.

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Staff file photo by Tim Barber / Two major fires burn at the Flipper Bend forest fire atop Walden Ridge in this view to the southwest from Montlake in October 2016.

The Tennessee Division of Forestry and the Georgia Forestry Commission have not yet issued formal plans or dates for prescribed burning, but Tennessee officials said operations will begin as soon as this week.

If conditions are appropriate, several prescribed burns by the state and through private permit are planned this week in Hamilton, Sequatchie, Bradley, Rhea, Meigs and Bledsoe counties, said Tim Phelps, spokesperson for the agency in Tennessee.

Rain or high winds can alter those plans, Phelps said.

Whitfield County, Georgia, officials announced tentative plans Monday for a prescribed fire on 55 acres in Rocky Face Ridge Park on Wednesday, weather permitting.

"There are already roadbeds and trails in place to be used as fire breaks," forestry commission chief ranger for Catoosa and Whitfield counties Chuck Arnold said in a proposal to the county.

The forestry commission estimates the burn will cost $2,300, including the cost of a standby county fire crew to protect structures in the area.

Prescribed burns are often performed by private landowners who can enlist the help of their state foresters, officials said. Most types of outdoor burning require a state permit in Tennessee and Georgia. Permits are required in Tennessee through May 15 in most counties, while Georgia has a summer burn ban in place from May 1 to Sept. 30.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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