Get Ready to Use Prescribed Fire

October 22, 2014 By: Craig Harper


A deer and habitat management program can gain considerable benefits from the use of prescribed fire, and knowing these benefits is the first step toward bringing fire back to forests that need it. I covered the benefits and how and when to use fire to achieve them in an article in Quality Whitetails. For this excerpt on the NDA website, I’ll briefly cover how to prepare for a burn.

Before implementing any prescribed fire, it is critical to work with experienced personnel until you have adequate experience to conduct the burn yourself. And then, it is always necessary to have adequate help to complete the burn. Before planning a burn, contact your state forestry agency to learn about available resources, assistance, regulations, and the permitting process.

red_flag_conditionsPreparing The Site

Before any site can be burned, there must be sufficient firebreaks – cleared lanes of exposed soil designed to stop fire. A creek or road can serve as a firebreak, but usually one has to be established. This is most often accomplished with a dozer and fire-plow. These firebreaks can be made more permanent by dressing them afterwards with a tractor and disk. This will smooth the firebreak, which makes it easier to walk or ride along with an ATV. This can be important when setting backing fires or checking stands after burning.

If adequate sunlight is available, firebreaks can be planted if desired. Of course, firebreaks should be established along contours with consideration to prevent erosion. Establishing firebreaks is best done months before the burn is planned. When it is time to burn, it is essential to clear firebreaks of debris to prevent fire from spreading across the firebreak. Any standing dead trees within reach of the firebreak within the area to be burned should be felled to prevent them from falling across or allowing embers to blow across the firebreak. While it is best to establish a firebreak that exposes soil (which doesn’t burn), firebreaks along the edges of woods can be created with water trucks that have the capacity to spread enough water that creates a wetline. Volunteer fire departments often have this capability and may be willing to help implement the prescribed fire.

Mowed strips of vegetation do not stop fire and should not be considered a firebreak!

The Burn Plan

A burn plan should be prepared prior to every burn. The burn plan should describe the area to be burned, state the objectives, and list preburn factors, such as a description of the fuels present, manpower and equipment needed, nearby smoke management considerations, and ignition procedure. A map of the area to be burned should be included in the plan. The map should clearly show the firebreaks and the planned ignition procedure. The desired, predicted, and actual weather conditions should be included in the plan. Obviously, actual weather conditions will not be known until it is time to burn; thus, the burn plan is a working document that is filled out before, during, and after the burn. Along with actual weather conditions, the desired and actual fire behavior should be recorded as well. Finally, after the burn, a postburn evaluation should be completed. All this information helps ensure you are prepared to implement the fire and helps you understand fire effects after the burn is completed. In summary, this helps make you a more successful and safe prescribed fire manager.

Notifying Appropriate Contacts

A critical step prior to burning is notifying the proper contacts. In most states, it is necessary to obtain a burning permit from the state forestry agency prior to burning, at least during certain seasons of the year. In addition to this, you should notify 911 and tell the dispatcher that you have a burn permit and that you intend to burn during the stated time of day. You then should call the area fire department(s) and tell them you have a burn permit and that you intend to burn during the stated time of day. Don’t hesitate to ask them to come out and help if they would like. Often, a local volunteer fire department enjoys coming out and helping. Involve everyone you can. Make sure your neighbors know what you are doing! The more contacts you make, the better. No one in the local area should be surprised when they see smoke.

Weather and Fuel Conditions

Wind speed, relative humidity, temperature, rainfall, and atmospheric stability are the primary factors that influence fuel moisture, fire intensity and smoke management. As you learn to burn, you will soon realize it is absolutely critical to follow weather patterns and forecasts when planning to burn. Accurate weather forecasts for planning prescribed fire can be obtained at the National Weather Service website. You may also find detailed weather information relative to prescribed burning at your state forestry agency website.

The importance of monitoring the weather cannot be overstated. This should be a regular activity as the burning season approaches. Weather patterns and forecasts should continue to be monitored in the days leading to burning and right up until burning is initiated. On-site conditions may also be monitored by hand-held instruments that provide temperature, wind speed, and relative humidity readings.

Predicted wind speeds of 6 to 20 mph are desirable when burning. However, it is important to note wind speeds are forecasted for open areas 20 feet above ground. Actual wind speeds 6 feet above ground in the woods are considerably lower. In-stand wind speeds at eye level should be 1 to 3 mph for safe, predictable burning conditions.

Relative humidity is the amount of moisture in the air compared to the total amount of moisture the air is capable of holding at that temperature. The preferred relative humidity for a majority of burning prescriptions is 30 to 50 percent.

Ambient air temperature is an important factor when burning as higher temperatures dry fine fuels more quickly than cooler temperatures, and higher temperatures increase the likelihood a fire will reach lethal temperatures to kill plants (145 degrees F at the cambium, or inner bark, layer).

Rainfall and atmospheric stability are two other critical factors. To learn more about reading all five of these primary weather factors in deciding when and how to burn, contact your state forestry agency.

Once you’re fully prepared and conditions are favorable, learn about four techniques you can use to light the fire.

About Craig Harper:

Dr. Craig Harper is a Professor of Wildlife Management and the Extension Wildlife Specialist at the University of Tennessee. Craig is a regular contributor to Quality Whitetails and a Life Member of the QDMA. Dr. Harper and his graduate students concentrate their work on applied management issues, including forest management, early succession management, food plot applications, and the effects of quality deer management.

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