We’ve all seen the headlines about wildfires. They cause disruptions to transportation, communications, utilities, and water supplies. Wildfires cost the economy billions annually. Uncontrolled fires result in losses in property, crops, resources, animals, and human life.
In 2022, the National Interagency Fire Center reported over 7.4 million acres were burned by 65,646 wildfires--the most reported in the past ten years.
Hazardous and damaging wildfires typically happen under extreme conditions like droughts or high winds. The grounds often have an excessive build-up of woody debris and dense vegetation because controlled fires have not been through the areas in decades or longer.
To some, it may seem strange to set fire to a natural area intentionally. When done correctly, however, prescribed burns (sometimes called controlled burns) can benefit the land and environment.
This article will investigate why burning helps natural areas and what happens before, during, and after a controlled burn.
Fire plays a critical role in many ecosystems. Excluding fire from natural areas can result in overgrown areas, invasive plant species taking over, and excessive fire fuel on the ground.
For example, trees become overcrowded and stressed in forests that don’t experience fire. Fire-dependent species disappear. Flammable fuels--like leaves--build up and, if ignited unintentionally, can make wildfires more severe. Controlled burns reduce the fuel on the forest floor while thinning out dense areas and invasive plant infestations.
Prairies also benefit from burns. Many native prairie plants have deep root systems allowing them to survive a fire. Fire kills invasive plants with shallower root bases. Fire also helps eliminate some of the vegetation on the ground choking out the plants or causing them to go dormant.
What Is A Prescribed Burn?
A prescribed burn involves setting a planned, low-intensity fire for land management purposes. Typically, these occur when conditions are favorable at certain times of the year. For example, early spring and late fall are the best times for controlled burns in the Midwest.
Controlled fire is not a new concept. Native Americans used fire to help manage their lands for generations. As the Native American population decreased, so did the use of controlled fire.
By the 1850s, much of America did not use burning for land management. European settlers changed fire regimes and how forests were used. Unregulated forest harvesting during the 19th and 20th centuries caused a surplus of fuel on the forest floors. This extra “logging slash” caused several catastrophic wildfires.
It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that fire started re-gaining popularity as land management tool. By the 1970s, private landowners and public agencies started showing interest on the effects of fire for their lands. Slowly more areas began to use (and benefit) from prescribed burns.
The Benefits of Controlled Burns
Each burned area benefits in different ways depending on its current condition. Controlled burns help natural areas by:
- Eliminating Invasive Plants that overtake land because they don’t have any natural predators.
- Reducing Competition of Native Plants competing for the same space and soil nutrients.
- Returning Nutrients to the Soil by burning vegetation on the ground.
- Encouraging Seed Germination by allowing more sunlight to get to and warm the soil.
- Reducing Hazardous Fuel Sources (like leaves) that may create more extreme wildfires.
- Helping Control Diseases that can affect insects, plants, and trees.
- Promoting the Growth of trees, plants, and animal species that depend on this nutritional source.
- Lowering Pest Insect and Disease Population compared to non-burned areas.
What Happens During a Controlled Burn?
It’s no secret: fire is dangerous. Controlled burns require planning an staff understanding how to harness fire power for land management. Many parks agencies work with professional, licensed burn contractors to handle fire on their assets.
Before a Burn
Keeping prescribed burns controlled requires planning.
Controlled burns are carefully planned events requiring favorable ground and weather conditions. A controlled burn varies in size depending on the landscape, resources, and planning. It could be as small as a section of land in a park district to hundreds of acres in a National Forest.
Before a prescribed burn, specialists complete burn plans to pinpoint how to manage the land and fire. They prepare maps plotting the area planned for burning, ignition patterns, and the location of firebreaks (like roads or paths).
The Parks marketing department can send out advanced messages about the controlled burn via email, social media, or press releases to prevent any unnecessary confusion or panic. The messaging also serves as a great way to educate the public about the benefits of fires for land management.
During A Burn
On the day of the fire, a trained crew vacates the area, sets the boundaries for the fire, and ensures the conditions are favorable for a safe burn. A safe burn with minimal smoke blowing requires the right temperature, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure, and ground moisture. If the conditions are not optimal, the burn gets scheduled for another day.
During the burn, strict safety protocols ensure the burn team and the public remain safe. Local authorities and fire departments get notified in case they get any calls from the public.
When possible, the fire technicians will “walk” the fire downhill. Burning from high to low ground ensures a slower-moving, less intense fire.
Parks staff should be available to explain and educate the public about the burns. Staff should be able to answer questions about controlled burns and why they are beneficial.
After a Prescribed Burn
After a burn, the area looks black and…well, like it’s been burned. Once the growing season begins, however, native plants start emerging. Soon, to the untrained eye, it will look like nothing ever happened. Those more familiar with the natural ecosystem will notice a healthier, more diverse area with fewer invasive plants.
If possible, add signage or flyers near a recently burned site, so the public knows this was done purposefully and why. Even a QR code on a sign can allow the public to use a mobile device to quickly get to a page explaining prescribed burns.
Some park districts choose to burn only a section of their natural area each year to allow refuge for wildlife habitat. Depending on land management goals, most areas benefit when the burns are conducted every 2 to 6 years.
Prescribed burns are one of the most effective ways for managing multiple land issues. It requires careful planning, trained technicians, and the right conditions to ensure the fire remains controlled.
The planning and hard work pay off. Areas with routine prescribed burns are healthier, safer, and more diverse than unmanaged lands.