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Fundamentals of Fire

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Burning questions about prescribed fire spark education, research at Noble Research Institute
prescribed fire
Grasses and brush burn in a prescribed fire conducted by Noble Research Institute staff.

"The OPBA will provide landowners with a clearinghouse of information, training and funding opportunities to help them safely and effectively apply fire to their lands."

  • Photos
  • Burn Management Plan

A written burn management plan includes:

  • The location and description of the burn site.
  • A range of burn dates.
  • Range of weather conditions under which the burn will be conducted.
  • A map of the area with ignition sequence.
  • A list of the burning crew.
  • Emergency contacts.
  • Equipment needs.
  • A contingency plan in case fire starts outside the burn area.
  • Identification and protection of smoke-sensitive areas outside the burn area.
  • A list of adjoining landowners.

A notification plan should be submitted to the local and regional authorities.

It is a late morning in southern Oklahoma, but the day is already just plain hot.

Temperatures have crossed the 90-degree barrier when a Noble Research Institute prescribed burn crew arrives at the organization's Coffey Ranch for an afternoon that is about to get much hotter.

Water trucks are positioned and ready around the firebreaks. Drip torches are prepped and ready at the starting point. Soon a few small fires join together to become a smoldering line of fire. Recent rains have greened up the foliage, which now crackles and pops like Rice Krispies as the fire slowly ignites.

The crew pushes through the brush, setting the fire as they go. Charcoal smoke billows into the once clear blue sky, and leaf debris falls like burnt paper.

Surrounded by the firebreak, the greenbrier thickets sizzle as the fire slowly fills the 5-acre tract. As a gentle breeze hits, the fire briefly swooshes through the brush. Winds play a key role in moving a prescribed burn through the brush. The progress of the fire, in part, corresponds to wind speed. Today the winds are mild and provide proper pace.

Thirty-five minutes later, the fire is out. The job is done. Weeks of planning culminate in a brief burn that serves as a reset button for the land.

A prescribed burn in the summer is somewhat uncommon for the Noble Research Institute crew, who are slugging down cold water, but ongoing research has shown that summer burns can sometimes be more effective on brush control than burns at other times of the year.

Of course, they are also much hotter.

Warming up to fire
Prescribed fire (or controlled burning) is one of the most powerful and important land management practices available to native plant communities for wildlife habitat and livestock forage.

Benefits of prescribed fire have been well researched and documented. Burning helps manage native rangeland and wooded communities. It improves forage production for livestock and offers habitat management for wildlife. It controls unwanted invasive species encroachment, for example, Eastern Red-cedar, at a young stage and eliminates fuel build-up, such as dead grass, which reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire.

"This region evolved with fire as a natural part of the ecological process, and it is necessary for keeping the land healthy and productive," said Steven Smith, Noble Research Institute wildlife and fisheries consultant.

To increase hunting success, Native Americans used fire to attract grazing animals to specific areas. Fire was also heavily used in the eastern part of the U.S. long before European settlement. As the early settlers moved in, they began to eliminate the use of fire because there was no way to control it, which in turn created the negative perception that is associated with all fire today.

"It's like saying floods are bad, but obviously rain is not," said Russell Stevens, Noble Research Institute wildlife and range consultant. "Wildfires are bad, but fire is not. People lost sight of that, simply due to fear of losing control. Prescribed fire is still a serious management technique that requires timing, a plan and appropriate weather conditions."

In other words, you need a prescription.

A prescription for health
A prescribed fire is a carefully planned, goal-oriented and - most of all - controlled process. Experts at the Noble Research Institute explain that every prescribed burn should have a defined purpose and must meet numerous criteria before implementation.

Planning begins well in advance of striking a match and takes various factors into account, such as wind speed and direction, relative humidity, air temperature, smoke distribution, and firebreak and equipment preparation, among many safety protocols.

The most important aspect of a prescribed burn is a written burn management plan (see pull box for additional information) which documents the specific elements necessary to safely conduct a prescribed burn. The plan essentially protects the burn crew and the surrounding property.

"If any part of the process does not fall into place for a particular burn and/or the risk is too high, knowledgeable landowners simply lay their plans aside for a better day and situation," Smith said.

The Noble Research Institute started using prescribed burning on a regular basis in the early 1980s, mostly for wildlife habitat improvement and brush control.

In the 1990s, a Prescribed Burn Workshop was developed to provide knowledge to producers on the benefits and proper use of prescribed burning for land management. The workshop, which is held each January, is designed to introduce participants to the various aspects of burning; teach them how to conduct a safe burn; and give them hands-on experience in a controlled setting. The workshop also explains each piece of equipment used in a prescribed burn during the hands-on demonstration.

Noble Research Institute wildlife consultants cover many aspects of conducting a prescribed burn, including legal and liability considerations. "Some landowners already use prescribed fire for accomplishing their management goals," Stevens said. "However, many still do not use this tool due to fear of liability as well as a lack of knowledge, labor and equipment. Solving knowledge, labor and equipment shortfalls goes a long way toward alleviating fear of liability."

Burning questions
In 2009, members of Noble's Agricultural Division saw an opportunity for research and demonstration projects that would identify methods to improve the health of native range and determine the ecological and economic value of prescribed burns.

The researchers and consultants recognized that landowners often seek alternative ways of using their land, but, at the same time, they want to know how it affects their bottom line and the health of the resource. "Without proper management of their native range resources, producers may be faced with diminishing returns from beef cattle production, a condition which may be exacerbated by range condition decline typically caused by overgrazing or brush encroachment," Smith said. "Improvement of the range could increase the viability of a livestock operation. Additionally, wildlife habitat resulting from improved range conditions may provide viable alternatives to enhancing or supplementing returns while also supporting quality-of-life goals."

One of the Noble Research Institute's research farms, the Oswalt Road Ranch, provided a unique opportunity to address these needs with a series of small- and large-scale research projects, including a 3,669-acre study designed to evaluate how prescribed burning affects stocker cattle production, herbaceous and woody species composition and growth, and land management economics on degraded rangeland.

"Much native range in the Southern Great Plains is presently stocked with cows at heavier than recommended rates, and range managers often do not incorporate fire into their management strategies," Stevens said. "Ecologists consider prescribed fire integral to range health, so it is imperative we have the data to truly understand its impact on the producer's bottom line."

The project began in 2011 and will continue until 2020.

Forming a new team
To further landowner education, the Noble Research Institute entered into a strategic relationship in the spring of 2013 with the Oklahoma Prescribed Burn Association (OPBA) to advance the use of prescribed fire as a safe, economical and effective land management practice in Oklahoma.

The OPBA and the Noble Research Institute, the largest independent nonprofit agricultural research organization in the United States, agreed that the Noble Research Institute would provide essential support (resources and personnel) to enable the conduct of OPBA operations and programs. As part of this support, Stevens will serve as coordinator and acting head of the OPBA.

"The goals of the OPBA align with the Noble Research Institute's mission to promote responsible stewardship of the land," Stevens said. "Prescribed burns are vital to ensuring the health and vitality of our native rangeland and farmlands, and the OPBA is now poised to provide a comprehensive resource to our landowners."

The OPBA was formally established as a nonprofit in early 2013 after two years of statewide meetings to gauge interest and garner support from all key organizations. The OPBA will establish, educate and assist a statewide network of local burn associations across Oklahoma. The new nonprofit will also serve to educate the public and policymakers about the need to use prescribed fire and the safety of this management practice.

"The formation of the OPBA is one of the most important steps to help landowners reclaim the Oklahoma landscape naturally," Stevens said. "The OPBA will provide landowners with a clearinghouse of information, training and funding opportunities to help them safely and effectively apply fire to their lands."

The OPBA brings together dozens of organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, the Oklahoma Conservation Commission and its 88 local conservation districts, the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, the Oklahoma Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, Playa Lakes Joint Venture, Quail Forever, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma State University Extension, Oklahoma Tribal Conservation Advisory Council, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service.

"Collaboration is one of the keys to success," Stevens said. "We have built a strong coalition of reputable organizations, all focused on improving the land and supporting landowners."

Efforts are also underway to obtain affordable insurance for landowners who apply prescribed fire to their property. The OPBA can play a key role or perhaps even provide an avenue for insurance companies to provide insurance policies for prescribed burning.

"Fire is another tool in a land manager's toolbox," Stevens said. "With continued education and a network of support, prescribed fire can become a more common and properly used management technique."