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What is Prescribed Burning?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Prescribed burning is a technique which is used to manage the natural environment. It involves consciously applying fire to a specific area and carefully controlling it to ensure that it does not spread. There are a number of benefits to prescribed burning when it is performed properly.

The practice of deliberately setting parts of the natural environment on fire to manage the natural world is ancient. In the Amazonian rainforest, for example, there is clear evidence that people have been managing the forest for thousands of years with fire. The wide prairies of the American Midwest were also shaped by fire, with Native American populations applying fire periodically to clear the land.

In forests, a prescribed burn can clear away potential sources of fuel for a wildfire. This reduces the risk of a catastrophic wildfire. Prescribed burns also renew the soil, eliminate pests, and clear away undergrowth and dead plants so that the nutrients can be recycled. Prescribed burns are often used as part of campaigns to restore native vegetation, because they can be used to totally clear a piece of land for replanting. Prescribed burning may also be used to create a firebreak around a home, business, or other developed area.

In many areas, someone must hold a license in order to perform a prescribed burn. This is designed to ensure that prescribed burns are safe. A permit may also be needed, and there are usually restrictions on when prescribed burns may occur. Windy days are not favorable, for example, because the wind could spread the fire, and the dry season is also a bad time for prescribed burning.

Usually a crew is required to conduct a prescribed burn. The crew determines ahead of time where they want the fire to go, and then they carefully start the fire. As it burns, members of the crew keep the fire contained, and they stay with the fire until it has burned out. Inspection of the site for remaining embers and flames is very important, as no one wants the fire to flare up again after the crew has left.

Forests in particular benefit from prescribed burning. Modern humans have been suppressing fires for so long that many people are unaware of the fact that forest fires are natural. When allowed to burn periodically, forest fires are of a much lower intensity, and they clear the ground in the forest, creating lots of open space for plants and animals to thrive. By suppressing fires, people contribute to a decline in forest health, and to the risk for explosive wildfires which burn fast and hot.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By WildHooper — On Nov 05, 2014

Prescribed burns are controlled in a number of ways. Firstly you must understand that fires only get out of hand under favorable conditions. Wind, lots of dead brush, or lack of moisture in the soil can all contribute to an out of control fire but it is much more likely to happen when all of these conditions are met at once. In the case of a prescribed burn, fire-crews will clear brush and wet the soil ahead of time to make sure that the fire can't "jump". If this does happen, usually due to unexpected wind, there are back-up tanks of water and fire-hoses ready to deal with the situation. Also, fire crews are usually outfitted with safety gear (helmet, fire-proof jacket, gloves and trousers, as well as respirators in extreme circumstances) and maintain communications with other fire crews that can support them in case of emergency.

By Warhawk — On Nov 04, 2014

How would someone safely contain a forest fire? Is that even possible? Wouldn't it become out of control? And how would they do this safely?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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