Top Tools & Tactics for Conducting Prescribed Fires

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Fires can be life-threatening and require a high level of skill to manage and contain. But they are also an essential natural occurrence, serving as a beneficial conservation tool. Periodic prescribed fires support the maintenance of forest compositions and ecosystem preservation by controlling pests, maintaining habitats, helping endangered species, and reducing the buildup of fire fuels.

Wildland firefighters require certain tools and tactics to manage these controlled burns safely and successfully. Read on to discover the three things they need to fight the flames.

1. A Burn Plan

A burn plan is critical to conducting a successful prescribed fire. A burn plan ensures that everything is in order before the fire is set. Wildland firefighters have many elements to consider before conducting a prescribed burn. This includes outlining acceptable weather conditions, identifying personnel and gear needs, and creating a contingency plan. A comprehensive burn plan should include the following information:

  • A map and description of the burn area
  • Target weather conditions (including limits for acceptable burn conditions)
  • Hazards in the burn area
  • Applied safety measures
  • Personnel needed
  • Emergency contacts
  • Objectives of the burn
  • Fuel types and amounts
  • Description of the surrounding area (closest water source, hazards, public safety concerns)
  • Natural firebreaks or the construction of firebreaks
  • Necessary equipment
  • Smoke management plan
  • Contingency plan
  • Fire clean-up plan

2. Fire-Controlling Mechanisms

The success of a prescribed fire relies largely on the ability to control it. This is made easier by the use of certain mechanisms, both natural and man-made.

Fire Breaks

Wildland firefighters employ natural fire breaks (such as rivers or creeks) that can organically limit the spread of the fire. Fire breaks can also be man-made, in the form of roads, or by removing underbrush down to mineral soil.

Sprayers and Backpack Pumps

Regardless of the weather, sprayers should always be used when starting a prescribed fire. Cattle and four-wheeler sprayers are often chosen for prescribed burns. A 2-inch gasoline-operated water pump can be used to fill sprayers with the water from ponds or creeks. Backpack pumps can be worn for targeted fire control, as they are made of a chamber of water and a piston pump. There should always be a reserve tank on standby in case it is needed.

Drip Torches, Fire Rakes, and Swatters

A drip torch helps distribute the fire in the designated area. This handheld piece of equipment provides a safe and targeted drizzle of fire for easy distribution, and is an important piece of equipment for any prescribed burn. A mixture of gasoline and diesel provides fuel that ignites easily and has longevity. A large fire rake can help move and cut small brush, and move litter away from the fire to prevent burning in unwanted areas. Fire swatters can also be used to smother small fires.

Chainsaws, Shovels, and Blowers

Hand tools are also essential pieces of a successful prescribed burn. Chainsaws and axes can be used to manage the perimeter and cut down snags or burning trees. Handheld blowers can suppress fire by blowing debris into or away from the burn area, or be used to create a fire line. Shovels are also commonly used to suppress fires with dirt.

3. Personal Safety Measures

Personal safety equipment is of the utmost importance when it comes to conducting a prescribed fire, so wildland firefighters need to protect themselves.

Clothing - Clothing should be made of natural fibers that do not combust easily. Commercial fire retardant clothing is made from fabrics such as Nomex, Kevlar, or cotton.. Synthetic fibers should be avoided as they can burn or melt, causing injury.

Boots and Gloves - Leather or rubber boots and cotton or leather gloves can withstand the heat of prescribed burns and offer insulation.

Helmets - Helmets should be worn to protect against falling debris. Goggles or a face shield can keep the heat off the face and protect against smoke and embers.

Respirators - Respirators should be kept on-hand to protect against the inhalation of smoke and ash.

Radios - Two-way communication is essential during a prescribed fire. Every member of personnel should be in direct communication with the group so they can stay in contact and stay safe.

Prescribed fires are a crucial facet of managing wildfires, but a successful and safe prescribed burn requires key tools and tactics. Before setting a prescribed fire, the initiating agency should implement public and fire staff safety measures, outline objectives and the likelihood of meeting them, define fire fuels and fire size, and collect the appropriate equipment. Only once these planning procedures are completed should a prescribed burn be conducted.

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