Prescribed (Rx) fire is a natural, inexpensive tool to manage your land. Rx fire has a history in North America, specifically, going back thousands of years with the Native Americans. They used it for purposes like hunting, warfare, communication, and community safety. Fire has been excluded from much of America since the arrival of Europeans, who have always had a fear of it (queue Smokey the Bear). This has led to many negative consequences for our ecosystems. Shortly put, fire is not only beneficial but necessary to the American ecosystem.
Why Use Prescribed Fire?
The use of prescribed fire by landowners and managers is much simpler and inexpensive than many would think. According to Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension, the average cost per acre of Rx fire is between $0.50 – $25 an acre, much of that cost depending on the preparation of firebreaks, which will be discussed later in the article.
The benefits of Rx fire include increasing the quality and palatability of forage for livestock and wildlife, controlling undesirable/invasive species such as eastern red cedar and sericea lespedeza, killing pests such as ticks, and reducing wildfire risk. Specifically for wildlife and livestock, fire helps to maintain open woodland or prairie where sunlight can reach the ground, increasing the growth of desirable native grasses and forbs.
Preparing for a Prescribed Burn
The first things that must be considered when you want to conduct an Rx fire are the firebreaks. These are the boundaries of your burn unit that contain the flame and prevent it from spreading to unintended areas. Depending on your geographic region and topography, this could be a road, creek, mowed/disced line, dozer line, or others. Installation of firelines is usually the most costly part of instilling a burn program, but can be kept up for years with minimal maintenance, such as periodically mowing and/or discing a dozer line. These firebreaks should go all the way down to the bare ground or even mineral soil. Quality firebreaks help to ensure a safe and enjoyable burn.
The next thing to consider is your burn crew. It is essential to have people on site with Rx fire experience. This person will know when to burn, the right way to burn, which authorities to call, and more. A good way to find those people is to contact your local Prescribed Burn Association (PBA). A list of these is usually available through your local extension office. These groups usually have small yearly dues, but will supply experience, people, and equipment to aid in your burns, and you will be able to gain experience and a sense of community by helping with neighbors’ burns.
Conducting a Prescribed Burn
There are numerous firing techniques, and each of them has different applications and objectives. Some of these techniques include headfire, backfire, ringfire, and more. Many good articles by OSU Extension explain the specific uses of each of these firing techniques.
Weather has the biggest influence on when you will be able to burn on your property. Safety is obviously the biggest concern when it comes to weather, but different weather conditions can also be used to meet different management objectives. For example, you will want the relative humidity (RH) to be slightly lower if you’re trying to completely burn up eastern redcedar. Conversely, if you want to burn leaf litter under an oak woodland and avoid tree morbidity, you’d want a slightly higher relative humidity.
The wind is another weather factor that has a massive impact on Rx fire. This will be the primary influence on the direction that your flame travels, as well as smoke (that is, on flat ground; sloped terrain will have an effect on this too, as flames travel uphill). If your property lies close to a heavily-used county road or a highway, you will most likely want to burn on a day when the smoke is carried in the opposite direction to avoid causing issues for drivers.
Prescribed Fire Liability
When it comes to the liability of Rx fire, many landowners are understandably concerned. This is why it is so important to have an experienced burn crew help in each fire. OSU Extension has this to say about liability:
“The best defense against liability claims from an escaped fire is to exercise good judgment with all decisions and ensure all prudent actions are taken. These actions include following all existing standards, rules, and regulations for prescribed burning. Claiming ignorance of prescribed burning methods or governmental regulations is not an acceptable defense. In most cases, ranch/farm insurance policies cover claims related to prescribed fire. However, after reviewing situations and legal cases in Oklahoma for the past 30 years, there are no examples of settlement of claims or successful lawsuits where a well-designed prescribed fire plan was followed.”
Prescribed fire is such an essential part of our ecosystems and our land management tool belt. It has been extremely underutilized in American land management, and it’s starting to show. For a minimal investment, landowners will see abounding benefits to their property’s plants, soil, water, wildlife, and livestock. Call your local extension office, PBA, or NLR Land Professional to find resources and support, and let’s all strike a match this year!