What Is a Controlled Burn? 11 Things (2023) You Must Know

Over the past century, fire suppression efforts have been emphasized at the federal level. However, the United States Forest Service is once again beginning to recognize the place that controlled burns have in management practices.

This method seeks to accomplish the benefits that regular fires provided to the environment while also preventing fires that burn out of control and threaten life and property.

If you’re interested in learning more about controlled burning, here’s what you should know.

1. What is a controlled burn?

A controlled burn (also called a prescribed burn) is a fire set intentionally for purposes of forest management, farming, prairie restoration, or greenhouse gas abatement.

While fire can be incredibly destructive, it’s also a tool for foresters.

Always remember that natural fire is part of both forest and grassland ecology.

2. What is the history of controlled burns?

Wildfires have two basic causes: lightning and human activity.

Controlled burns fall under the human activity category, and they have a long history in wildland management.

In pre-agricultural societies, people used fire to regulate both plant and animal life.

For instance, the indigenous people in North America and Australia both utilized periodic wildland fires.

In the U.S., fires (both wild and controlled) were suppressed in the early 20th century due to federal fire policies.

However, since 1995, the U.S. Forest Service has slowly started to reincorporate controlled burning practices into forest management.

3. How does a controlled burn work?

Controlled burns are intended to mimic fires in nature.

A team of certified fire experts strategically design controlled burns so they occur under the safest conditions possible.

To make a controlled burn safer and more effective, ecological thinning often occurs before the burn itself.

Additionally, factors like weather and wind are considered to ensure that both fire practitioners and the nearby community are protected when a controlled burn is happening.

4. What are the two most common types of controlled burning?

bulletBroadcast burning

This type of burning involves lighting fires across a tract of land from a few hectares to thousands of hectares in size.

This method is often used to prevent a destructive wildfire, reduce insect populations, and destroy invasive plants.

In some cases, broadcast burning may also be used to return nutrients to the soil in the ashes of vegetation that may otherwise take years to decompose.

Not only does burning help to rejuvenate the soil, but it also helps to create open space and add more sunlight to an area.

This can help young trees and other plants to start growing.

bulletPile burning

This type of burning is used when conditions aren’t safe to set a larger fire.

To pile burn, you cut, collect, and stack leaves, limbs, and other debris to burn when weather conditions permit.

This method is sometimes used to burn slash (the remnants of forest thinning or logging operations).

5. What are the benefits of controlled burns?

While we often think of fire as a danger for both land and people, there are some benefits of prescribed burning.

Here are the benefits of controlled burns and why you might consider this an effective management technique in the right place at the right time.

  1. Controlled burns reduce hazardous fuels
  2. Controlled burns protect human communities from extreme fires
  3. Controlled burns minimize the spread of pests, insects, and disease
  4. Controlled burns remove unwanted species that threaten native plants and animals
  5. Controlled burns provide forage for game
  6. Controlled burns improve habitat for threatened and endangered species
  7. Controlled burns recycle nutrients back into the soil
  8. Controlled burns promote the growth of trees, wildflowers, and other plants

When you’re managing a piece of land — particularly one with forests — it’s important to recognize that the land can become overgrown.

This brush can become fuel for the fire.

If a controlled burn does not occur and one is left to start naturally, it can be difficult to control.

When a wildfire is extreme and out of control, this is when it becomes too dangerous for people, animals, and land.

6. Where are controlled burns done?

Controlled burns are done where there’s the greatest need for forest restoration as well as the largest risk of an out-of-control wildfire.

Eleven Southern states in the U.S. have a burn manager certification program.

One state, in particular, that does a lot of controlled burns is Florida.

Its program started in 1990 after the state recognized that it would lose significant biodiversity if it didn’t implement such a practice.

The practice was further strengthened in 1998 when firestorms burned about half a million acres in 1998.

Western states haven’t adopted controlled burn policies as vigorously.

California is 2.5 times larger than Florida, but it burned only about 35,000 acres compared to Florida’s 1.6 million in 2021.

This issue stems partly from land ownership.

Around half of California is privately owned, and landowners in the state haven’t had much luck gaining support from public agencies to conduct burns on their privately-owned properties.

To do these burns correctly, property owners would need permits and buy-in from firefighting agencies as well as air-quality regulators.

Additionally, it can be difficult for private landowners to get the proper insurance to protect themselves when burning, which further hinders the practice.

That said, some Western states like New Mexico are starting to institute limited liability for controlled burning as well as a burn boss training program.

Slowly but surely, the method is gaining traction.

7. When do controlled burns occur?

Controlled burning most often occurs during the cooler months to reduce fuel buildup and decrease the likelihood of serious hotter fires.

This can be advantageous for growth as well.

Controlled burning stimulates the germination of desirable forest trees and reveals soil mineral layers that increase seedling vitality, which renews the forest.

Certain plants and trees also require heat from the fire to disperse seeds.

For instance, the cones of the lodgepole pine and sequoia are pyriscent.

This means that the fire’s heat allows them to open and disperse their seeds.

8. Are controlled burns a good thing?

Yes, when done properly controlled burns have a number of benefits.

They remove old vegetation, which makes room for new growth and strips away “fuel” (dead and downed trees) for natural wildfires.

They also shift soil nutrients to a state more favorable to prairie species and help to reduce the spread of invasive and pest species.

That said, you should not attempt a controlled burn on your own.

Property owners interested in using this technique should check the state regulations and work with a land management agency to ensure they don’t put the local community or land at risk.

9. What is a burn plan?

A burn plan helps property owners and land management agencies to determine the safest and easiest way to complete tasks before, during, and after a controlled burn.

Always check with your local jurisdiction to see what is required, but the plan will often include the following critical elements regarding the prescribed burn:

  1. Basic information about the unit and landowner/manager conducting the burn
  2. A description of the area to be burned (i.e., legal description of the land, pasture name, dominant vegetation type, etc.)
  3. The main vegetation/fuels present
  4. Directions to the nearest burn unit in case of an emergency situation
  5. An explanation of the objectives of the controlled burn
  6. A list of names of fire departments, adjoining landowners, and others that need to be notified before conducting the burn
  7. Any pre-burn preparations that must be done before conducting the burn
  8. Management practices required before the burn to make the process safer or more effective
  9. A record of the fuel conditions on the property and continuity of fine fuel
  10. A description of the amount of coverage or distribution of the fuels
  11. A description of the weather conditions required to safely conduct the burn
  12. The upper and lower weather conditions allowable for the burn
  13. Any smoke management considerations that should be understood around the burn unit (as well as the wind direction and dispersion conditions)
  14. A pre-burn checklist that allows the planner to determine if there are potential problems that could occur within or around the site
  15. The observed weather on the day of the burn as well as the weather conditions before, during, and after the burn
  16. A list of equipment that might be needed to conduct the burn
  17. A list of people required to safely conduct the burn
  18. A description of the ignition sequence that is required to ignite the burn safely
  19. A step-by-step action plan that describes what should be done if the fire escapes and the proper procedures for controlling an escaped fire
  20. A signature box that is signed and dated by the prepared when the plan is finished

Having the information clearly laid out can help the “burn boss” to clearly consider all the actions prior to the burn and reduce complications associated with the burn.

10. What are the barriers to utilizing prescribed fires throughout the U.S.?

The obstacles for controlled fires vary depending on the type of land in question: public lands and private lands.

As noted above, some states have more private land which limits property owners’ ability to take advantage of controlled burns.

That said, some factors affect both types of land equally and can serve as a challenge to this land management technique.

For instance, the weather is a significant barrier for prescribed burns because they require specific weather parameters.

If these weather conditions aren’t met, then the burn cannot be carried out.

Additionally, weather can add a time component.

Because the weather parameters are specific, the burn must be carried out during a period when the conditions are met.

Another factor in this equation is location because different locations have different weather variations and patterns.

Furthermore, other challenges include capacity issues, resources, negative public perception, permitting and regulations, liability concerns, and air quality regulations.

In order to conduct a controlled burn, there must be enough personnel available to safely conduct the burn.

If these people aren’t available, then capacity issues can occur.

Resources are also required for a controlled burn.

You need both money and equipment, and if either of these is lacking, then it cannot take place.

Additionally, while fire’s reputation is changing, many people still believe that wildfires and burning are a negative thing for the environment.

For this reason, it can be difficult to obtain the proper permitting and regulations and obtain approval from stakeholders.

Finally, liability concerns can be a true obstacle for property owners, especially if they aren’t able to obtain the proper insurance to perform a controlled burn.

11. How do controlled burns address larger and more frequent wildfires?

Due to climate change, an increase in wildfire frequency and severity is anticipated in the coming decades.

Thus, controlled fires have an increasingly important role to ensure that wildfires remain manageable (although, they won’t eliminate wildfires completely).

When fire isn’t used as a management technique, trees become overcrowded, fire-dependent species disappear, and flammable fuels build up and become hazardous.

All of these factors prime forests for wildfires that burn quickly and endanger nearby communities and properties.

Controlled burning is an effective tool that is used to prevent the spread of wildfires and reduce fuels.

When it isn’t used, wildfires are able to consume those fuels, and they’re a lot less easy to control which can result in more damage.

Final Thoughts

As noted above, controlled burns are not a new method of land management.

Native Americans have long used this technique to manage their lands.

However, as their population decreased, so did the use of fire.

In general, regular burning ceased around the 1850s.

A variety of factors led to aggressive fire suppression in the early 20th century by the Conservation Movement, including the establishment of public land management agencies.

During the following decades, public service announcements were run featuring Smokey Bear with his slogan, “Remember…Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.”

Today, foresters are much better at understanding the importance of fire in nature and how it can be used correctly.

Wildfires are sometimes left to burn, and controlled burning is also used when necessary.

Both types of fire are overseen by firefighters to ensure that there is no threat to the surrounding community or property.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants, or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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