In the Upper Midwestern United States on this first day of spring, the prescribed fire season is fast approaching—or is maybe already upon us, for some. So, as we get ready for this spring ritual by checking to make sure our Nomex fire suits from last season still fit, and checking to see that the drip torches, fire hoses, and pumper trucks are in working order, I thought we’d review a few principles of prescribed fire use.
Fire is a widespread natural phenomena, and is commonly used as a conservation tool in grasslands, savannas, oak-pine, and oak woodlands worldwide. But fire is not appropriate in all situations or ecosystems. Depending upon the timing and how it is used—even where ecologically appropriate—prescribed fire can meet the desired outcomes or have catastrophic results.
So, as a spring refresher course, I humbly offer these principles that are drawn from my many hours spent on the fire line, and from our recent textbook from Island Press, “Introduction to Restoration Ecology” by Howell, Harrington, and Glass, pages 310-318. What is Prescribed Fire? It is a tool—albeit a dangerous and exciting one—used to meet restoration and conservation goals. It is called prescribed fire because it is conducted under a set of prescribed conditions of weather, timing, safety, and side conditions; and is used to achieve a set of prescribed results.
Prescribed Fire Plans
Keys to success and safety are planning, and appreciation of the fact that fire is not controlled, but rather, fire behavior can be predicted—and planned for. Considerable time should be spent in the off-season, creating a burn implementation plan that described the conditions under which the burn will be conducted, the management goals you hope to achieve, and how and who will ignite and manage the fire. The fire plan should consider how to avoid or handle potential hazards to the fire crew, utilities, buildings, and the public.
Principles of Prescribed Fire Tool Use
As with any tool, effective and efficient use depends on when, how, and how often it is used. Specifically for prescribed fire here are the main factors you should consider: 1. The frequency and seasonal timing of the natural disturbance cycle you are trying to imitate. 2. The growth stage of a plant species that is to be encouraged or discouraged. 3. Wildlife activity (nesting birds, for example) in order to avoid unintended harm. 4. Weather conditions (air quality and smoke management.)
Constraints On the Use of Prescribed Fire
As a fire manager, you will usually have to get a variety of permits and approvals from municipalities and/or other regulatory agencies, such as fire departments, departments of transportation, and natural resource management agencies. The permitting process is a means of ensuring that fires are conducted according to guidelines that support the health and safety of those doing the burn, and those living or working in the area. Two issues of recent concern are smoke management (how smoke impacts neighbors) and the potential impacts of fire on air quality. Check with your local fire department for current regulations.