Controlled Burning 101

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Forest fires are natural disasters (considered quasi-natural disasters if human activities cause them) that have, over the course of history, posed great dangers to life, property, and the environment. The slightest friction during extremely dry conditions can ignite a spark, becoming a serious threat to the wildlife and surrounding areas. Over the years, U.S. federal agencies have sought ways to mitigate the threat posed by forest fires, finding one very practical solution: controlled burning.

What is Controlled Burning?

Controlled burning (also referred to as pile burning or prescribed burning) is used as a form of hazard reduction, and can be used in, but not limited to, the areas of forest management, farming, and wildlife preservation. Controlled burning as hazard reduction is based on the application of low-intensity fire to a predetermined area and under specific conditions in order to reduce the amount of flammable fuel and lessen excess fuel fire. In other words, subsequent fires pose less risk to the treated area as they generate less heat, making them easier for fighter fighters to contain – aka, fire can be used to fight fire!

Back Burning:

Back burning or back firing is a method of controlled burning that incorporates the use of low-intensity fire to mitigate or inhibit forest fires from further spreading into communities during the actual event. While prescribed burning is premeditated to prevent potential fires from growing out of hand, back burning is a fire that is created to reduce the amount of flammable fuel during a forest fire.

The Many Uses of Controlled Burning:

In addition to lessening the fine fuel load in an area, controlled burning has been and is currently being used for the following reasons: to mitigate the spread of hazardous fuels caused by forest fires; to dispose of logging debris; to clear sites for agricultural purposes; to improve the wildlife habitat of endangered species; to manage competing vegetation; to control the spread of pest insects and diseases; to improve both the accessibility and the aesthetics of an area; and to preserve and promote the growth of a variety of species. The Giant Sequoia, for example, relies on fire to reproduce: it opens its cones for its seeds once the fire clears all competing vegetation. Controlled burning has also been associated with the crucial recovery of one of North America’s rarest animals, the Louisiana Pine Snake.

A Brief History of Controlled Burning in the U.S.:

Some of the earliest national uses of controlled burning occurred in the late 1960s in the U.S Forest Service (USFS) wilderness areas such as the Selway-Bitteroot in Idaho and Montana, and Gila in New Mexico. In 1968, the Sequoia-Kings National Park in California practiced controlled fire for the first time on federal land, and was subsequently followed by the Yosemite National Park two years later. By the 1970s, the National Park Service (NPS) undertook systematic fires for the purpose of seed growth. Although controlled burnings are by and large used to contain wildfires, they are also vital to the project of caring and maintaining for wildlife habitat and the ecosystem.

All in all, fire can play a significant role in the growth and maintenance of the ecosystem when applied to the right environment and under the right conditions. A controlled fire is a practical and effective tool utilized to mitigate forest fires in order to protect and save human life along with property and the environment.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Chris D 2006

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