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Hay Rakes Can Help Build Better Firebreaks

By Frank Motal
Range Ecology and Technology Research Associate

Posted Jul. 2, 2018

Many decisions go into planning a safe and effective prescribed burn that meets your management goals. You will need to determine your burn objectives and consider the weather as well as personnel and equipment needs. You’ll also need to prepare firebreaks, something that ranks high on the list to safely conduct a burn.

Creating Mowed Firebreaks

You can use several types of firebreaks with effectiveness, but you will need to more carefully monitor mowed breaks for smoldering or for fire creeping across than you would bare soil or gravel breaks.

When mowing with a brush hog, the clippings are not discharged to the side like a lawn mower. They are usually discharged toward the rear and back onto the firebreak. This creates difficulty in controlling your fire because the clippings dry out, are near the flames and can ignite easily from embers.

If mowed early and often enough, the clippings will break down and decompose, decreasing any potential problems. Let’s face it, though, sometimes we get behind and don’t mow early or often enough to mitigate litter and thatch issues, during dormant- or growing-season burns.

How Hay Rakes Can Help

A side-discharge hay rake will help by making mowed firebreaks better for fire containment. At Noble, we put an old hydraulic side-discharge hay rake back into service just for raking fireguards. You can use a ground-driven rake as well, but it may be a little rougher riding in the tractor since speed is needed to make the reel work properly.

For dormant-season burns, you only need to rake once if you have mowed after the plants go dormant. When conducting a growing-season burn, you may need to mow and rake multiple times if the burn is not done soon after the first mowing and raking.

Since using the hay rake, it has been easier for us to extinguish and control flames along our mowed firebreaks. We observed that raking the firebreaks:

  • Removed excess material that could smolder and reignite by moving the litter farther away from the fireline.
  • Made it easier to walk and control fire when conducting the prescribed burn.
  • Removed thatch to expose multiple, small spots of bare soil.
  • Made the wet-lining technique more effective.

Two minor disadvantages are that fresh-cut litter does not rake well unless it is allowed to dry for a couple of days after mowing and that a rake does not work well in leaf litter.

Final Thoughts

Raking firebreaks with hay equipment may be out of the ordinary, but for us it has been very useful and will continue to be used in preparing our firebreaks.

If you practice prescribed burning and own a hay rake or can borrow one, think about putting it to use when not baling hay. It will be worth the time and effort when you are ready to conduct your prescribed burn.

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