Prescribed fire, also known as controlled fire or burn, is a highly recognized tactic to manage landscapes, prevent wildfires and restore habitats. This procedure is not done without thorough planning and lots of certifications to make it a smooth and safe process.

Jon Bailey and Aliesha Black from the Nature Conservancy, and Logan Johnson from Maine TREE, are three experts in managing prescribed fires in the U.S. who recently shared their knowledge via webinar.

The Nature Conservancy views prescribed fire as “a natural tool on the landscape,” explained Bailey. It is much safer than a wildfire, as those who utilize it have time to not only plan out the entire process and make objectives for the burn, but also work to minimize any risks. Before a match is lit, there is a long process that must be completed properly.

One of the most important aspects of controlled fire is creating a burn plan. The burn plan has many components, which include who needs to be notified about the fire; what equipment is needed; why you are burning in the first place; where the medical team is going to be stationed; what the process of burning will be, etc.

In a broad sense, Bailey explained that when creating a burn plan, you must “think of the worst-case scenarios and then … [mitigate] backwards on how you are going to reduce those risks or eliminate those risks from the equation.”

In many situations, big failures are caused by “small things that catch up to you in the end,” he added.

Additionally, the team should compose a contingency plan, which Black explained is a way to prepare for what could happen. In order to cover all the “what-ifs,” the plan should consist of the description of the fire area (including the slope of the land and any threatened/endangered species), smoke management, the ignition and holding plan, the post-burn plan and more.

When considering all potential risks, assume what would happen if you did this controlled burn under the worst weather conditions possible. Bailey explained, “Although we would never burn under those conditions” – such as strong gusts and super dry weather – “we [prepare] for that because there’s an unknown that the weather could change.”

Using prescribed fire as a management tool

There are a wide variety of reasons why a controlled burn would be planned: to promote fire-dependent ecosystems (benefiting the plant life and the wildlife), reducing wildfire risk, reducing/eliminating invasive species and even supporting access to public areas. Although there have been a lot of improvements made to the protocol and planning procedure of controlled fires, there are still a lot of challenges to face: planning, resources, permits, finding proper insurance, timing and costs.

The main concern is the liability and insurance for the controlled fire. “Even with a burn permit, you are still liable to follow those rules on the permit,” Black clarified.

There are also so many unknowns in a controlled burn, such as the potential for escapes and injuries. One concern the public may have is the risks of injuring and impacting species in the area, such as ground nesters. Black detailed how they take into consideration seasonality and timing, and they wouldn’t burn a field if they knew ground birds would be laying eggs at that time.

When there are escapes or problems that arise from controlled fires, it usually occurs during the mop-up phase – the time after the fire has been extinguished. In Maine, for example, a state law that helps prevent problems in the mop-up phase is requiring someone to watch the area after the fire is extinguished to make sure it is completely out.

Prescribed fire is a beneficial tactic that is much safer than nature-caused natural wildfires. However, there is a right way to prepare for it and execute it to make it as safe and effective as possible.

For more information on prescribed fire, search for Piscataquis Soil & Water Conservation District on YouTube for the recorded webinar.

by Kelsi Devolve