Prescribed Fires and Controlled Burns

Controlling Fire in Forests for Ecological Benefits

Summer in the Canadian Rockies
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The very foundation of fire ecology is based on the premise that wildland fire is neither innately destructive nor in the best interest of every forest. Fire in a forest has existed since the evolutionary beginning of forests. Fire causes change and change will have its own value with direct consequences that can be both bad or good. It is a certainty that some fire-dependent forest biomes benefit more from wildland fire than others.

So, change by fire is biologically necessary to maintain many healthy ecosystems in fire-loving plant communities and resource managers have learned to use fire to cause changes in plant and animal communities to meet their objectives. Varying fire timing, frequency, and intensity produce differing resource responses that create the correct changes for habitat manipulation.

A History of Fire

Native Americans used fire in virgin pine stands to provide better access, improve hunting, and ridding the land of undesirable plants so they could farm. Early North American settlers observed this and continued the practice of using fire as a beneficial agent.

Early 20th Century environmental awareness introduced the notion that the Nation's forests not only were a valuable resource but also a place of personal revitalization - a place to visit and live. Forests were again satisfying a human desire long pent-up to return to the forest in peace and in the beginning so wildfire was not a desirable component and prevented.

An encroaching modern wildland-urban interface developed on the edges of North American wildlands and millions of acres of new tree's being planting to replace harvested timber called attention to the wildfire problem and led foresters to advocate the exclusion of all fire from the woods. This, in part, was due to the wood boom after WWII and the planting of millions of acres of susceptible trees that were vulnerable to fire in the first few years of establishment.

But all that changed. The "no burn" practices of a few park and forestry agencies and some forest owners proved to be, in itself, destructive. Prescribed fire and understory fuel pile burning are now deemed necessary tools for controlling the damaging unbridled wildfire.

Foresters found that destructive wildfires were prevented by burning under safer conditions with the necessary tools for control. A "controlled" burn that you understood and manage would reduce fuels that could feed potentially dangerous fires. Prescribed fire assured that the next fire season would not bring destructive, property-damaging fire.

So, This "exclusion of fire" has not always been an acceptable option. This was dramatically learned in Yellowstone National Park after decades of excluding fire resulted in catastrophic property loss. As our fire knowledge has accumulated, the use of "prescribed" fire has grown and foresters now include fire as an appropriate tool in managing the forest for many reasons.

Using Prescribed Fire

"Prescribed" burning as a practice is well explained in a well-illustrated written report entitled "A Guide for Prescribed Fire in Southern Forests." It is a guide to using fire applied in a knowledgeable manner to forest fuels on a specific land area under selected weather conditions to accomplish predetermined, well-defined management objectives. Although written for Southern forests, the concepts are universal to all of North America's fire driven ecosystems.

Few alternative treatments can compete with fire from the standpoint of effectiveness and cost. Chemicals are expensive and have associated environmental risks. Mechanical treatments have the same problems. Prescribed fire is much more affordable with much less risk to the habitat and destruction of site and soil quality - when done properly.

Prescribed fire is a complex tool. Only a state certified fire prescriptionist should be allowed to burn larger tracts of forest. Proper diagnosis and detailed written planning should be mandatory before every burn. Experts with hours of experience will have the right tools, have an understanding of fire weather, have communications with fire protection units and know when conditions are not just right. An incomplete assessment of any factor in a plan can lead to serious loss of property and life with serious liability questions to both the landowner and the one responsible for the burn.​

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Nix, Steve. "Prescribed Fires and Controlled Burns." ThoughtCo, Sep. 4, 2021, Nix, Steve. (2021, September 4). Prescribed Fires and Controlled Burns. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "Prescribed Fires and Controlled Burns." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).