Despite its increasing popularity over the last two decades, I believe prescribed fire is still the most underutilized habitat management tool available to landowners today. No other form of habitat management can impact as many acres as quickly and affordably as burning. And let’s face it, it’s just dang fun to do. Probably the biggest reason fire has yet to become a mainstream management technique is due to liability concerns. And while that is certainly understandable, when properly planned and executed, burning can be a very safe endeavor.
This article is not intended to be comprehensive enough to prepare you to conduct your first burn, but what it will do is give you a basic understanding of why you’d want to burn and what factors you need to consider when doing so. I will wrap things up by telling you where to find additional information and training so you can take the next step toward using prescribed fire, if you think it’s something that would benefit the land where you hunt.
Benefits of Prescribed Fire
The first benefit of prescribed fire is that it removes leaf litter and debris in a forested setting and the layer of dead grasses and forbs in fields, which exposes the soil to sunlight and returns nutrients to the soil. The result is often a flush of new vegetation that can provide excellent forage for deer, turkey and other wildlife, as well as good wildlife cover. However, if you are burning a forested area which a closed canopy, the response from new vegetation may be limited. That’s because even though the soil may be exposed, without sunlight reaching the forest floor, those native seeds present in the seed bank won’t be able to germinate and develop to their full potential. So in a forested setting, it may be necessary to conduct a timber thinning prior to starting a burn rotation to get the maximum benefit from the burn.
A second benefit of prescribed fire is that it sets back succession by killing young, woody vegetation. This helps to keep saplings from taking over your fields and forests. How effective a fire is at accomplishing this is dependent on several factors including the timing and intensity of the burn.
A third benefit of prescribed fire is that it attracts deer and turkey to the area, thereby improving the hunting. Early native Americans took notice of this and often used fire to their advantage. However, it wasn’t until recently that researchers actually documented this attraction, even on extremely small properties. Dr. Marcus Lashley researched the attraction of burning to white-tailed deer and found that by burning blocks as small as 1/4 acre, a hunter could increase shot opportunities by 13 times over a non-burned area. That’s because the vegetation in that newly burned area had as high as double the protein and triple the mineral content of the unburned area, which proved much more attractive to deer.
Have a Plan
When it comes to conducting a safe and effective prescribed burn on your hunting property, planning is key! And if it’s your first time conducting a burn, those plans should be guided by a trained professional and documented in a detailed burn plan. The burn plan should highlight the area to be burned, the manpower and equipment needed to burn the area, the weather conditions needed for the burn, and how the burn will be executed.
Time of Year
The time of year a burn is conducted can have a major impact on how the vegetation in that area will respond. The vast majority of burns are conducted in the winter, because vegetation is dead or dormant, and it’s often the easiest time to get good, safe burn weather (more on that in a minute). However, while burning in the winter will certainly remove leaf litter and return nutrients to the soil, it’s not going to permanently kill most woody vegetation, and it may not stimulate the vegetation you are hoping to promote. If the goal is to kill off woody vegetation or other specific types of vegetation, then you will likely need to burn when those things are actively growing. That’s not to say that winter burns aren’t effective, but you have to consider your goals for the burn to determine the best timing to achieve those goals.
Weather plays a significant role in how a fire behaves and whether you get the desired results from a prescribed fire. Factors like ambient temperature, humidity, wind speed, and days since last rain can all have an impact on your results. In most cases, you want to burn when the humidity is between 25 and 50 percent. Any lower and the odds of the fire getting out of hand go way up. If humidity is higher than 50 percent, then you will likely have a hard time getting things to burn at all, unless it is just very hot and the fuel (vegetation) is very dry.
Wind speed and direction is another important factor, and in most cases you want winds in the 5 to 15 mph range. As you can imagine, if it’s too windy, then flames or embers can potentially blow across a firebreak and into an area you didn’t intend to burn. And while it may seem that calm conditions would be a great time to burn, that is not the case. A good, steady wind will keep the fire progressing in the right direction and makes it much easier to predict where your smoke will go so you aren’t sending it into a sensitive area like a major highway, a residential neighborhood, etc.
When it comes to creating firebreaks, the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” comes to mind. The best case scenario is having nice, wide, disked breaks with bare soil exposed all the way across. The bigger you can make the breaks, the better. Sometimes natural barriers can work, such as creeks or rivers, roads, or green vegetation. In wooded areas, where a disked break isn’t an option, a good leaf blower can clear a nice firebreak.
Safety is always the first priority of any prescribed fire, so when implementing one, it is important to have enough people to adequately monitor and contain the fire, and that each person have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to avoid potential injury. This may include a hard hat, goggles, leather gloves and leather boots. Be sure to wear clothing made of natural fibers like cotton, as synthetics can melt to your skin if they were to catch fire.
If the fire is large enough where you won’t be able to maintain visual and audible contact with one another, then you will need a way to maintain communication — either two-way radios or cell phones. This is extremely important in case the fire were to get out or if weather conditions change during the course of the burn. It’s also just a good practice to keep tabs on where everyone is at throughout the burning process.
Contact Proper Authorities
The day of the fire, you will want to make sure you have any necessary burn permits, and that you’ve contacted the local authorities — 911 dispatch, fire department, and your state forestry agency — to let them know you will be conducting a prescribed burn. While this may not be a requirement in the state where you’re burning, it is a courtesy to those agencies to avoid them wasting valuable time and resources checking on what they may assume is a wildfire.
Before lighting the first match, get everyone who is helping with the fire together for a pre-burn meeting. This doesn’t need to be anything formal, but everyone needs to be aware of their responsibilities and expectations. Each person should be assigned a task whether it be lighting the fire or monitoring a portion of the firebreak. Fill everyone in on how you intend to conduct the burn, including where you will start lighting the fire, how you will progress, where the firebreaks are located and how to contact each other as needed. Make sure that everyone fully understands and is comfortable with their assignment.
Conducting the Burn
How you conduct the actual burn depends on a variety of variables — weather, manpower, size of the burn, what you are burning, and desired results — and is beyond the scope of this article. But I will say to always start with a small test fire near a firebreak to verify how well your fuel is going to burn and that the wind is going to carry your smoke where you expect it to. My next tip would be to take the burn slowly — particularly if you are new to prescribed burning. While it may seem that the speed of the burn is out of your control, it really isn’t. If you allow your fire to burn into the wind, it will typically move very slowly through the fuel. I also recommend to start small. Even if you have a large block you ultimately want to burn, you can divide it up into smaller, more manageable blocks to get a good feel for the burning process.
Once the fire has reached the opposite fire break, essentially finishing off the burn area, it is important to continue monitoring the burn area and “mop up” as needed. That simply means making sure there are no burning logs or snags near any of the firebreaks that could potentially fall across or throw an ember across the break and allow the fire to escape. Depending on the size of the burn, you may not be able to extinguish all the burning logs and snags, but at least make sure you take care of any within a reasonable distance of the firebreak. At least one person should occasionally check on the fire until it is completely extinguished. This may take several days depending on the size of the burn, the fuel load and weather conditions.
It’s important to either be properly trained before conducting your first burn, or to seek the help of a qualified professional. Start with your state forestry agency and state wildlife agency to see if training or assistance is available. You may be able to get free help or at a reduced cost.
It’s hard to beat prescribed fire when it comes to being able to positively impact large acreages of property in a relatively short period of time for a variety of wildlife species. While burning is not something to take lightly, it can be done in a very safe manner when properly planned and executed.