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Season Grasses | Warm
Restoration | Old
Fields | Grass
Planting | Prescribed
Grassland Birds | Upland
Prescribed burning is a very important management tool
for maintaining and enhancing grasslands. Fire was an important
natural part in the development and maintenance of grasslands,
forests, and wetlands, throughout history. To many of
us, fire is a feared enemy that destroys everything in its path.
Because of this, the use of controlled fires, such as prescribed burning, is underutilized as a
management tool for improving and maintaining habitats.
For thousands of years, tall grass prairies and open brushlands were kept free
of trees by the occasional wildfires that cleared the landscape every two to 50 years. These
fires were caused by lightning, or set intentionally by Native
Americans. They had discovered that fire killed woody plants, but
encouraged fruit bearing shrubs, and forage producing grasslands.
Present day research and experience have shown that prescribed
burning can be an effective management tool. Prescribed burns are
used most frequently to maintain and restore native grasslands. Prescribed burning can
recycle nutrients tied up in old plant growth,
control many woody plants and herbaceous weeds, improve poor quality
forage, increase plant growth, reduce the risk of large wildfires,
and improve certain wildlife habitat. To achieve the above benefits,
fire must be used under very specific conditions, using very
Brushlands can be invigorated and maintained with fire to benefit
species such as bluebirds and sharp-tailed grouse. Burning
old fields controls saplings and woody vegetation, and improves
grasslands for use by nesting wildlife and grazing livestock. Forest openings can be manipulated with
burns to benefit more than 150 wildlife species. Upland nesting cover used by pheasants, waterfowl, and songbirds will remain productive if
periodically burned. Cattails and sedges are returned to vigor by an
occasional burn. Lastly, if you want more oaks in a hardwood stand, a fire will kill off less
tolerant species such as maple, and
basswood, allowing the oak to compete more successfully. Burning is
also more cost-effective than other treatments like bulldozing,
cutting, or chemicals.
Every prescribed burn should have a clear objective. This
objective is necessay to evaluate the success of the burn. To show
the success, or lack thereof, of a prescribed burn, a photograph can
be taken before, directly after, and one year following the burn.
Objectives for a prescribed burn often include one or more of the
- Kill woody plants
- Remove grass and wildflower dead
vegetative build-up (duff)
- Promote regrowth of warm season
- Promote regrowth of cool season
- Reduce or set back noxious weeds
- Increase populations of
- Reduce cattail mono-cultures
- Reduce wildfire fuel build-up
- Promote growth of fire dependent
trees such as Jack pine
- Increase populations of threatened
and endangered species
Burn objectives should be identified in the burn plan. The
objectives help determine the weather conditions for the burn, the
timing of the burn, and how hot the burn should be.
For both safety and legal reasons, certain groups should be
notified before a burn to prevent unnecessary concerns and danger.
Notifying neighbors, fire departments, and local law enforcement
officials should be part of the prescribed burning process. Working
with the local fire department is crucial because a burn permit may
be necessary, and there may be a burning ordinance in your area. A
copy of the burn plan should be given to the local fire department.
The National Weather Service should have a telephone number listed
in your area. They will be able to keep you up to date with changing
There are many things to consider when planning for a prescribed
burn. Burns need to be conducted by individuals who are
experienced and trained in the use of fire.
However, as a
landowner, it is important to understand prescribed burning and its
use. For instance fire moves faster uphill than on a level surface,
so slope of the burn area must be taken into account.
When using fire it is important to plan for firebreaks. A
firebreak is an area that will contain a fire within its boundaries.
A plowed or disked strip, reaching down to mineral soil, is the most common method of
establishing a firebreak. Sometimes, a mowed path, or a walking
trail, can be used as a fire break. Firebreaks can also be planted
to grasses and clovers so they can provide key food and cover to
wildlife. For example, if an area is burned every five to seven
years, the firebreak is disked up the fall before the burn. Then,
after the spring burn, the firebreak is planted to grasses and
clovers. Firebreaks should be at least 20 feet wide.
Basically three kinds of equipment are needed for prescribed
- Tools to ignite the fire
- Tools to control the fire
- Safety equipment
A drip torch, a can of liquid fuel with a long spout, burning
lightly at the end, may be used to start and spread the fire. It
will drop a three to one fuel oil-gas mixture on the grass at a
steady rate. This allows for a continuous fire line, and quicker,
more efficient fire application than a fire rake.
To control (mop up) your fire properly, fire swatters, 12 inch X
18 inch pieces of reinforced rubber attached to a handle, or fire
brooms, are great to smother small grass fires. A backpack water
pump can be teamed up with a swatter for maximum efficiency. The
pump operator would lead knocking down larger flames (using a spray
for cooler fires and a stream for hotter ones) while the swatter can
follow up making sure the fire is put out. To aid in the extinction
of the fire, one quart of dishwashing detergent can be added to 50
gallons of water (one tablespoon of detergent to one gallon). This
mix helps the water to "cling" to the grass fuel. Low-pressure,
field crop sprayers with handgun nozzles can work for small burn
areas that have safe boundaries, as well as backpack and herbicide
sprayers. An all-terrain vehicle can also be helpful for carrying
extra tools or tanks of water to your site. If high-pressure pumps
are used, then water should be rationed to prevent it from running
out partway through the burn. If a wetland, pond, stream, or other
water source is near the burn site, then pumps and sprayers will be
easy to refill.
Safety equipment is also very important. Make sure that a first
aid kit and plenty of drinking water are always nearby. Poorly
managed burns or ignorance of safety measures can lead to property
damage, and even injury or death. Even in well-managed burns
accidents can occur. Before, during, and after
every burn, safety should be the major consideration.
can also add a measure of safety. Fireproof Nomex pants and shirts
are essential. Leather boots and gloves, along with eye protection,
should be worn at all times. Never wear synthetic fibers like nylon,
which can melt and stick to skin. A long sleeve shirt, a hard hat,
and long pants, will keep you safe from radiant heat and flare-ups.
The more skilled the burn crew is the more likely the fire will be
controlled and thus beneficial. Generally, three or four people are
needed on each fireline (more if safety may be challenged). One will
ignite the fire and be in charge of operations (the fire boss), one
or two should keep the fire on its correct path, and any others
should help mop-up (extinguish flare ups or escaped
The timing of a burn determines the plants which will be
benefited and controlled, the impact on wildlife species, and
safety. Most burns are conducted mid to late spring, or in the fall.
Burning to favor desired grasses should take place just as they are
starting to green up, and the soil surface is damp. Generally, a
late spring burn will control woody vegetation and cool season
grasses better than an early spring burn but are not as beneficial
for wildflowers. This burn will also provide warm season grasses
with nutrients they need to grow.
Before burning, nesting times of grassland species should always
be checked to prevent the destruction of nests and their
inhabitants. The best time for spring fires is late March into
April; generally in the morning or evening, when the relative
humidity and temperature are not changing as rapidly as during
daylight hours. The drier the area the earlier the burn should be to
avoid damaging the earliest blooming wildflowers. Though fall burns
are possible and can be beneficial, they are often avoided, due to
the cooler temperatures, drier ground, and destruction to winter
wildlife habitat they may cause.
Weather has an overriding effect on a prescribed burn. A burn
plan will outline the weather conditions, which must be met before
the burn is conducted. It is very important to have the latest and
most updated weather conditions available before starting the burn.
Relative humidity is an important factor to consider when planning a
controlled burn. If the relative humidity is below 50%, the dryness
of the grass is prone to causing very hot fires. If the relative
humidity is above 70% the fire will have a hard time catching at
all. Therefore a relative humidity between 50% and 70% works
Temperature is also important when laying out a burn plan because
of its relation to relative humidity. Below 32 degrees Fahrenheit
grass mats will rarely burn, and above 80 degrees Fahrenheit burning
is hazardous. Between 40 degree Fahrenheit and 60 degrees Fahrenheit
Wind direction and speed should both be taken into account as
well . The wind speed should be between three and seven mph, and the
wind direction should remain steady. If either varies greatly, the
fire can shift with gusts of wind, and may burn too quickly with
an increase in wind speed. Both of these variables can severely
hinder safety precautions if not watched closely. In general, wind
is calmer in the morning and the evening. Smoke management is
crucial. Always warn your neighbors of your burn, and prevent smoke
from hindering any roadways by planning your burn when the wind
direction is going away from the road.
Of all the weather parameters the wind speed and direction are
most critical. Unless professionals are included in the burn crew a
burn at over seven mph is not recommended. Faster burns are less
effective. They may not remove all the litter and unwanted species.
In addition, safety comes first. Often the safest time to burn is in
the evening between 7 pm and 10 pm. This is when humidity is on the
rise, temperature decreases, and wind speed dies down, creating the
setting for a slower (and safer) fire. However, burning after dark
can be dangerous. Areas still smoldering can be missed.
There are 4 basic burn techniques used in the prescribed burning
of grasslands. These four techniques include:
- Back fire
- Parallel (flank) fire
- Perimeter (ring) fire
- Strip head fire
Each method has strengths and weaknesses depending on the weather
conditions, size of the area, and expertise of the individuals
conducting the fire. Special considerations when conducting the burn
include power lines, telephone lines, and oil or gas lines.
A backfire is used downwind of the burn site. This is most
often the coolest and safest fire. However, it is slower burning and
therefore takes longer to finish. The fire is ignited on the
downwind side of the fuel and slowly burns into the field against
the wind, expanding the firebreak. This burn technique is often used
in conjunction with other burn methods.
A parallel or flank fire burns hotter and faster than a
strip fire or backfire. It works well on square or circular parcels.
A fire is ignited on the sides of the burn site parallel to the wind
direction at the same time or soon after a backfire is lit. The
people igniting the fires on either side should keep continuously in
touch by 2 way radio.
A perimeter fire is not only one of the quickest burn
methods, but also creates a hotter fire than those listed above.
Since this type of burn technique develops a hotter and faster
moving fire, which can be harder to control, it must be handled
carefully. This method starts with a backfire, followed by lighting
the flanks, and finished by lighting the upwind side of the burn
site called the head of the site. This headfire will move rapidly
towards the flanks and backfire.
A strip head fire burns slightly faster than a backfire,
is relatively safe, and works well for burning rectangular or odd
shaped parcels. It is also cost-effective. A series of strips are
lit, starting at the downwind side of the site, burning only one at
a time. Ideal when burning with a limited number of personnel.
Remember when choosing a burn technique, your level of experience
with burning, and that of your burn crew, should be a major factor
in your choice.
Prescribed burning is an important management tool to maintain
native grassland communities. An objective is established
and a burn plan is developed which meets the burn objective.
Experienced and trained individuals conduct the burn under the
guidance of a burn plan. Neighbors, local law enforcement agencies,
and local fire departments should be notified. Safety is always the
top priority for the burn.
PLAN (attach aerial photo)
|Location of Burn:
||Range ________ |
||Field # _________
Burn target date(s):
Fire Plan: indicate on aerial photo the
wind direction, fire lanes, location and type, back-up fire
lanes, firing sequence and hazards such as roads, buildings,
power lines, etc.
Suppression in Event of Escape Plan:
Discontinue firing sequence. Leave sufficient personnel with
the prescribed burn to prevent further escape. Remainder of
crew suppress escaped fire. Notify local department if