Fire has always been part of the environment, and as one of the most important natural agents of change, fire plays a vital role in maintaining certain ecosystems. Native Americans understood this and used fire to run game, maintain prairies and keep ecosystems healthy. Prescribed fires, also known as prescribed burns or controlled burns, refer to the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions that helps restore health to ecosystems that depend on fire.
Prescribed fires help reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on our lands and surrounding communities by:
- Safely reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs and trees
- Encouraging the new growth of native vegetation
- Maintaining the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire
Prescribed fire is one of the most effective tools we have in preventing wildfires and managing the intensity and spread of wildfires. However, a prescribed fire is still fire, thus fire-management experts are extremely careful in planning and executing one. These specialists know what the optimal conditions and timing are to conduct prescribed fires based on years of training and experience. The weather conditions, topography, fuel types and equipment all determine how a prescribed fire is conducted.
Sometimes prescribed burn managers find a natural firebreak, such as a creek, lake, canyon or road, from which they set a downwind backfire. This creates the blackline at which successive, low-intensity ignitions will stop. In some cases aerial ignition is done with a helicopter dropping ping pong-like balls that are filled with a substance that slowly ignites after landing on the ground. Sometimes in flat terrain, large sections are burned off from a natural firebreak using a portable fire torch that uses fuel carried in a pickup truck or behind an all-terrain vehicle.
To learn more about types of prescribed fires, the benefits of prescribed fires, the history of native Americans using fire to manage ecosystems, and the anatomy of a prescribed burn, visit www.goodfires.org.