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What is Prescribed Burning, and What Are Its Benefits?

Fire is one of nature’s most powerful forces. Seemingly every summer, wildfires in regions of California, Arizona, and Colorado make national news with the destruction and devastation they cause, and with a drying climate and warmer temperatures becoming a yearly norm, the threat of fire damage is going nowhere but up.

This paints a grim picture that portrays fire as an agent of destruction, however, fire is very much a part of many normally functioning ecosystems. Fire plays an important role in clearing forest debris, controlling pest populations, and rejuvenating open meadows to allow new grass to grow more freely. 

In this article, the benefits of prescribed burning will be discussed, shedding light on how fire can be used to increase the value and quality of a piece of land.

What is Prescribed Burning?

Prescribed burns, also referred to as controlled burns or managed fires, involve purposely setting and regulating a fire for the benefit of the land. Prescribed burns have a long history in North America, as many Native Americans and European settlers used controlled fires to help clear their land of unwanted debris and promote the growth of desired crops.

Prescribed Burning Benefits

Although it is true that fire is dangerous, that does not mean that fire is bad. There are many benefits of controlled burns that can improve the quality of a piece of land. A few of the most notable include:

  • Clearing debris, such as dead leaves and branches, from a meadow or forest floor so that new vegetation can germinate and flourish
  • Controlling insects and pests that damage trees and contribute to an unhealthy ecosystem
  • Eliminating unwanted weeds and competing vegetation, allowing trees and other target crops to get a more desirable share of water and soil nutrients
  • Breaking down and returning nutrients to the soil to create a more rich growing environment
  • Limiting the amount of available burning fuel on a piece of land, decreasing the chances of an unwanted wildfire occurring

Building a Safe Prescribed Burn

Although there are many benefits to a prescribed burn, fire remains dangerous. Controlled burns should be executed with the utmost care and caution, with the Department of Natural Resources helping to develop the most comprehensive plan.

A prescribed burn will include all of the following elements:

Outline

An outline provides information such as where you are going to burn, what the burn will accomplish, how the burn will take place, and how it will be evaluated. It should also include safety and liability information should the burn get out of control.

Site familiarity

It is important to know the burn area inside and out. Be aware of any threats in the burn area, such as power lines or fences, that could be damaged by the fire. Give the burn area a thorough walk-through prior to setting the fire.

Season

Most prescribed burns take place in the spring. However, the season will depend on the region. Ideal conditions for a prescribed burn include low wind, moderate humidity, and temperatures between 40 and 60° F.

Firebreaks

Even if the property has features such as ponds or roads that may stop a fire from spreading, it is a good idea to add more. Mow, plow, or disk a large path around the burn area.

Proper equipment

A fuel-filled canister with an igniter that sets and directs the fire, known as a drip torch, is required to perform the burn. You should also have a sprayer capable of 125 pounds-per-square-inch and at least six gallons of water output per minute to help control the fire. It is also important to wear the proper fire-resistant clothing and personal protective equipment during the burn.

Fire crew

The amount of people at the burn site will vary depending on the size and complexity of the fire, but most crews have at least four people: one to set the fire, two to watch and control the fire, and one to put out any flames that continue to linger after the first three crew members have moved on.

Paperwork

Most places require a state or local burning permit for a controlled burn that needs to be in place prior to the burn date. It is also necessary to alert neighbors and local law enforcement so that the flames do not raise concern.

Maintaining the Ecosystem

Fire is one of nature’s most formidable forces. However, despite its capacity for destruction, it is a necessary part of many healthy ecosystems. As a result, prescribed burns, in which a fire is purposely planned, set, and regulated, can be a valuable means of improving the quality of a piece of land.