Prescribed burning is an objectively worrying activity. I mean, how could going against the wishes of Smokey Bear ever be a good thing??? Although the fear associated with burning is understandable, it's our duty as people who put fire on the ground to understand our fears. To differentiate the valid concerns from the knee-jerk impulse to stop any fire from ever hitting the ground. I've encountered quite a few people who want to see prescribed fire abolished, who think it's deadly and evil. In this article I hope to address both the rational and irrational responses I've encountered to the idea of ecological burning.
There is no doubt that there are valid things to be concerned about in regards to putting fire on the ground. I feel like whenever we write about prescribed fire we say this, but only because it's absolutely true: safety is our top concern. Everything we do is secondary to keeping burns safe and effective, for the involved firefighters and the surrounding community. Some of the things we keep in mind while preparing for a burn are:
- Smoke - Lots of smoke gets tossed up from a burn, smoke that has the potential to disrupt outdoor activities or adversely impact the health of sensitive categories of people (asthmatics, the elderly, etc). Burn bosses are careful to burn when wind blows away from sensitive areas (hospitals, schools, population centers), and only on days when conditions are right for smoke to disperse before it can lay down in populated areas.
- Personal Safety - Arguably the most important part of a burn. We work extremely hard to ensure that PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is donned correctly at all times. We remind each other as often as we remember to look up, look down, and look around. We always keep lookouts posted to ensure any unexpected fire behavior can be dealt with as quickly as possible. When you're out on the fire line, you look out for yourself, of course, but you always keep an eye on your fellow firefighters.
- On-site Critters - Everyone I know who burns does so because of a true love of the outdoors. These are the people that stop traffic to help a turtle cross the road, or pull over on the highway to help a confused snake back to safety. A large part of the reason we burn so early is to avoid harming sensitive animals. In many cases we are burning on land that contains endangered species, so we are careful to burn when we're certain the animals are out of the habitats we burn in. While we can't assure 100% safety, prescribed burns are never about hurting animals. We recognize them as members of the ecosystem, and, as with many other aspects of fire-dependent ecosystems, the animals that reside in those ecosystems have adapted to the presence of fire.
- On-site Insects - In their paper on Fire and Insects in Northern and Boreal Forest Ecosystems in North America, McCullough and his team investigated potential connections between fire and the presence of various species of invasive and native insects that find their hope in the ecosystems that often see prescribed fire put down. They found that it is entirely dependent on the type of insect. Some native species are given better breeding grounds as a result of fire, some have their breeding grounds reduced. Some invasives are well controlled by fire, others flourish in it's presence. Working to research our post-burn effects is a vital part of being able to burn better in the future. We need to know what we can change in our burning habits in order to reduce collateral damage and maximize our effectiveness (McCullough Et Al, 1998).
- Health of the landscape - Ironically, though this is often our main objective (after fuel reduction), many people worry that fire kills native plants and invites invasives to take their place. Though improper practices can invite invasives (if fire is used too frequently or in the wrong ecosystems), the truth tends to be quite the opposite: fire-dependent natives thrive on fire, and in areas overrun with invasive plants it can be an extremely useful tool to reduce the presence of species such as multi-flora rose, garlic mustard, purple loosestrife, and others. Seeing a flush of natives fill in a previously burned area is one of the most gratifying things I enjoy in my job.
- What if it escapes? - Especially with the recent stories out of Utah of a prescribed fire turning into a wildfire, this may seem like the most dangerous potential side effect of burning: creating the very problem we set out to stop. This is exactly why we have lookouts: so that if a spot fire (a fire that leaps outside our established perimeter for the fire) occurs, we can find it and put it out as quickly as possible. Preventing this is dependent not only on the kinds of burn-breaks (things separating the unit we burn from surrounding land, can be mowed lines, roads, trails, etc) we have in place, but more importantly it's dependent on weather. Burning on dryer and windier days means the fuel is more likely to take flight and land in unwanted areas. Preparing a solid fireline and checking conditions before a burn are the best ways to prevent unwanted spreading.
- Won't it just kill everything in the area? - While there are some slower creatures that may be unable to escape from a fire, many animals are either able to escape from a fire or are simply able to avoid the impacts of a fire. As discussed earlier, we do everything we can to avoid hurting sensitive animals. Not everything will be killed, and much of what gets burned ends up better off after the burn.
- Will it burn me??? - Unless you are standing in the middle of the fire, no. Probably not.
- What about my dog, Wilbur??? - Nope! Wilbur should be just fine.
- Doesn't fire disrupt the Earth's geomagnetic field??? - Uh............. no. Probably not.
Feel free to comment with any and all thoughts, be they in agreement or in complete disagreement! This site is meant to open a dialogue about Prescribed Fire, and in that spirit, any and all voices are welcome here.
Fire and Insects in Northern and Boreal Forest Ecosystems in North America - (McCullough et Al, 1998) - https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1056&context=barkbeetles