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Fires - Not All Are Created Equal

Posted Mar. 1, 2006

During recent months, wildfires have burned thousands of acres in Oklahoma and north Texas. Media coverage has been extensive, and all accounts I have seen report on the devastation and destruction caused by these fires. To be sure, many of them have regrettably caused significant damage to personal property, but, in most instances, the "land" has not been destroyed, as is often reported. In fact, from a landscape perspective, the opposite often is the case. Now, don't get me wrong, I am not campaigning for wildfires. Wildfires are dangerous and potentially disastrous, and steps should be taken to prevent them. My concern is that with the rash of wildfires we are experiencing and the associated media coverage, people will not differentiate between wildfires and prescribed fires and will conclude that all fires are bad. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Numerous articles about the use of fire as a management tool have appeared in NF Ag News and Views, and most describe techniques or discuss benefits. I would like to use my space to define "prescribed fire" and help readers differentiate between prescribed fires and other types of fires.

Prescribed fires are planned, goal oriented and controlled. Planning usually begins well in advance of striking the match and takes various factors into account. Wind speed and direction, relative humidity, air temperature, fuel load, smoke distribution, potential risk factors (houses, buildings, roads, etc.), fireguard preparation, equipment preparation and authority notification are just some of the things taken into account to develop a safe and effective prescription. Proper planning prevents damage to personal property and facilitates an effective burn.

A prescribed fire has a well-defined purpose, although that purpose may vary from fire to fire. In the Noble Research Institute's service area, brush control often is the primary goal. Other possible goals include pasture maintenance and rejuvenation, litter removal, brush pile removal, fuel load removal, etc.

Perhaps the most important aspect of a prescribed fire is control and containment. Prescribed fires are implemented only when all requirements of the prescription are met. Weather conditions must be conducive to achieving the burn goal and safe implementation. A prescribed fire is controlled and contained within a predetermined target area and monitored continuously until the fire perimeter is completely extinguished for a safe width (usually 100 to 150 feet, depending on conditions). After the fire perimeter is secure, the burn area is monitored intermittently until all burning material is extinguished.

Prescribed fire is one of the most powerful land management tools. Unfortunately, prescribed fires are often confused with wildfires or uncontrolled pasture burns, which often cause great damage. A prescribed fire must meet all of the above-mentioned criteria. Through proper planning and control, we can use the powerful forces of fire to manipulate positive change on the landscape.