Prescribed Fires and Fuels Management
Experts Journal — Land Management

Prescribed Fires and Fuels Management

September 22, 2021 | Hall and Hall

In early May, flames began to spread through a pine forest, consuming a dense carpet of leaves and underbrush. The burn was the definition of a “good fire,” intentionally ignited to clear vegetation that could fuel future infernos.

It happened in the state leading the nation in controlled burns: Florida.

As Western states contend with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, some are looking to the Southeastern U.S., where prescribed fire is widespread thanks to policies put in place decades ago. From 1998 to 2018, 70% of all controlled burning in the country was in the Southeast.

While a continent apart, both regions have a similar need for fire. For thousands of years, forests and woodlands experienced regular burning, both sparked by lightning and used by Native American tribes, which prevented the buildup of flammable growth. Without fire, the landscape is prone to intense, potentially devastating wildfires.

Despite that risk, Western states have struggled to expand the use of controlled burns. Now, several Western states are moving to adopt the fire policies pioneered by Florida and other Southern states as a hedge against the future. They include training problems for burn leaders and providing liability protection for them.

“The bigger challenge is changing the culture around fire, so that residents know that tolerating a little smoke from good fires can help stop the destructive blazes that cloud the air for weeks.”

National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have proposed to greatly expand the use of prescribed fires across America’s forests and rangelands.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2021 aims to ramp up the number of acres across federal, state, county and private lands managed with prescribed burns. The act’s sponsors are Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., in the Senate and Reps. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., in the House.

To reach this goal, the bill would establish new funding accounts at both the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior for prescribed fires on federal lands. The bill would also create a separate $10 million collaborative program to conduct these fires on county, state and private lands at a high risk of wildfires.

To support this expanded effort, it would create an incentive program for state, county and federal agencies to conduct large-scale controlled burns. It would also establish a workforce development program for prescribed fire practitioners, including employment initiatives for women, tribes, veterans and the formerly incarcerated.

What are fuels?

Anything that can burn is fuel for a fire. During a wildland fire all kinds of plant material can act as fuel, including grasses, shrubs, trees, dead leaves, and fallen pine needles. As these burnable materials pile up, so do the chances of catastrophic wildland fire. In the right conditions, excess fuel allows fires to burn hotter, larger, longer, and faster, making them more difficult and dangerous to manage.

Why manage fuels? We manage fuels to restore and maintain ecosystems.

Wildland fires can be devastating, but not all fire is bad. Fire plays a natural and necessary role in many landscapes. Periodic low-intensity fires speed up the process of forest decomposition, create open patches for new plants to grow, improve habitat and food for animals and deliver nutrients to the plants that survive. Some research indicates fire may also improve ground water recharge and water flow to aquatic habitats.  They build resilience to fires by reducing immature trees, brush, dead branches and limbs  (a.k.a. ladder fuels) and creating a mosaic of burned, partially-burned, and unburned areas (which makes it less likely that future fires will torch an entire landscape). Some trees, like lodgepole pine, require the heat of flames to open up their cones and disperse new seeds.

How do we manage fuels?

Managing fuels means reducing their availability to feed a wildfire. We do this by:

  • Deliberately starting a fire (a.k.a. prescribed fire) under favorable conditions (so we can manage where and how the fire burns) in order to remove excess vegetation and other fuels, such as leaves, pine needles, branches, etc.
  • Thinning forested areas with chainsaws or heavy equipment.
  • Removing brush and small trees by hand.
  • Reducing the quantity of grasses and shrubs mechanically or by placing domestic, grazing animals (e.g. cows, goats) on a landscape.
  • Chemically treating an area overgrown with invasive plants using herbicides.

Fuel treatment projects occur year-round depending upon location, vegetation type, weather, and many other factors.

How good fire and fuels management became routine in the South

Low-intensity fires were once common across the U.S. Tribes would burn woodlands to encourage plant growth, improve food and weaving resources, and attract game. In the fast-growing forests of the Southeast, fires would happen every few years.

After colonization, some settlers in the Southeast adopted similar burning practices on lands taken from tribes. But by the early 1900s, the era of fire suppression began. Burning was seen as a threat to timber harvests. The U.S. Forest Service implemented an edict to extinguish all fires. On billboards and in ads, Smokey Bear spread the idea that fire was the enemy.

By the 1960s, land managers realized that many landscapes had become choked with brush, grasses and small trees. In the Southeast, where the majority of land is privately owned, some residents had continued controlled burning and wanted to see the practice grow.

In 1990, Florida passed a law to encourage prescribed burns, recognizing that the state would lose significant biodiversity without it. After firestorms burned almost 500,000 acres in 1998, the law was strengthened.

Florida set up a certification system for burn managers, also known as “burn bosses,” requiring candidates to get special training on weather and landscape conditions for safe burning. With that certification, burners are protected from liability lawsuits in the rare event a burn gets out of control, unless it’s shown there was “gross negligence” on their part.

In total, 11 Southern states have burn manager certification programs. As a result, controlled burning has become part of the social fabric. While Western states have a long way to go, some experts say the resurgence of burning has already begun, led by communities and Native American tribes. Some states have begun passing legislation that removes liability for private landowners to conduct prescribed burns, and there are numerous federal and state programs emerging to provide landowners with additional resources to manage fuels.

What are fuels?

Anything that can burn is fuel for a fire. During a wildland fire all kinds of plant material can act as fuel, including grasses, shrubs, trees, dead leaves, and fallen pine needles. As these burnable materials pile up, so do the chances of catastrophic wildland fire. In the right conditions, excess fuel allows fires to burn hotter, larger, longer, and faster, making them more difficult and dangerous to manage.

Why manage fuels? We manage fuels to restore and maintain ecosystems.

Wildland fires can be devastating, but not all fire is bad. Fire plays a natural and necessary role in many landscapes. Periodic low-intensity fires speed up the process of forest decomposition, create open patches for new plants to grow, improve habitat and food for animals and deliver nutrients to the plants that survive. Some research indicates fire may also improve ground water recharge and water flow to aquatic habitats.  They build resilience to fires by reducing immature trees, brush, dead branches and limbs  (a.k.a. ladder fuels) and creating a mosaic of burned, partially-burned, and unburned areas (which makes it less likely that future fires will torch an entire landscape). Some trees, like lodgepole pine, require the heat of flames to open up their cones and disperse new seeds.

How do we manage fuels?

Managing fuels means reducing their availability to feed a wildfire. We do this by:

  • Deliberately starting a fire (a.k.a. prescribed fire) under favorable conditions (so we can manage where and how the fire burns) in order to remove excess vegetation and other fuels, such as leaves, pine needles, branches, etc.
  • Thinning forested areas with chainsaws or heavy equipment.
  • Removing brush and small trees by hand.
  • Reducing the quantity of grasses and shrubs mechanically or by placing domestic, grazing animals (e.g. cows, goats) on a landscape.
  • Chemically treating an area overgrown with invasive plants using herbicides.

Fuel treatment projects occur year-round depending upon location, vegetation type, weather, and many other factors.