Using Fire As A Tool To Improve Forest Health

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There are two ways fire managers use fire as a tool to improve the land: first, prescribed burns and second, resource benefit fires.

Springerville — Sixty-five years ago Smokey Bear was introduced to the American public as the symbol of fire prevention.

As one of the most successful public campaigns in history, Smokey’s message, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” has reached millions of people via song, posters, storybooks, memorabilia, public service announcements, Web sites, and even personal appearances. Through his message, Smokey has taught us that we are responsible for preventing the occurrence of fire in our beloved forests.

Today, the message of Smokey Bear is still as relevant to us as it ever was; however, it has changed slightly.

No longer does Smokey tell us to prevent “forest fires” but instead, “wildfires.” The change may seem simple enough — as many may think there is little difference between the two words — but it is significant because it illustrates a change in our understanding of fire and how it is used.

While “forest fire” can relate to any fire burning in the woods, “wildfire” indicates an unmanaged fire. Thus, not all fires need to be extinguished. Fires that will benefit the forest should be allowed, and fires that will burn uncontrollably and cause extensive damage should be suppressed.

Fire as a tool

Fire is a tool. Of course, this is not a new concept for us humans. We use fire to heat our homes, to cook our food, and even to propel our cars down the road. In all of these settings, fire is knowingly used so as to provide us with the things we need — warmth, nourishment and transportation.

Likewise, fire helps provide the land with the things it needs by removing excess fuels and thinning trees, returning nutrients to the soil, and encouraging the growth of foraging plants necessary to wildlife. Because of the risk to people and their communities, we do not allow fires to burn unchecked; however, we do actively manage fire — or use it as a tool — so it can still provide all of these necessary things to the land.

There are two ways fire managers use fire as a tool to improve the land: 1) prescribed burns and 2) resource benefit fires. Simply stated, prescribed burns are planned fires because fire managers intentionally ignite them, and resource benefit fires are unplanned in the sense that nature, not people, performs the ignition. Prescribed burns include both the burning of piled woody matter (pile burns) and the widespread burning of a defined area (broadcast burns). Resource benefit fires are typically started by lightning and they are allowed to burn within a defined area. Both prescribed burns and resource benefit fires are used by fire managers to achieve certain desirable results for the land.

Fire Management 101

When fire management activities are taking place on the forest, many of us see the smoke, but rarely see the fire. So, what do these fires look like on the ground? Here’s a glimpse:

Pile Burns — These are formed through either mechanical (with the help of heavy equipment) or hand-thinning work in which certain, designated trees are cut, broken down into smaller pieces, and then gathered into piles ranging from 4 to 8 feet high and 5 to 10 feet in diameter.

Depending on the size of the pile and the thickness of the materials within, it can take anywhere from 24 hours to a few days to burn these completely. In places where piles have been scattered over a large area — such as a few hundred acres, it may take up to a week just to light all of them. When this happens, fire managers may allow a break every few days to limit the smoke.

Broadcast Burns — These take place in both open (where there is mostly grass and/or brush) and wooded areas. To start, fire managers use a drip torch to ignite the desired places within the boundaries of the burn, and sometimes, helicopters are used to ignite large areas.

For more open areas, windy conditions are needed to carry the flames; while wooded areas need less wind.

Broadcast burns can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and they typically take place in late spring and early fall when the weather is cooler and grasses have cured (or dried).

Resource Benefit Fires — These are naturally ignited fires which are only allowed to burn if the conditions are right and the necessary resources are available to manage their activity.

Resource benefit fires may burn close to the ground or up into the trees’ crowns, depending on the vegetation type and land management objectives for the area. Typically, however, these fires are intended to be “low intensity” and burn excess fuels on the forest floor. As for duration, they can last anywhere from a few days up to a couple of months.

When fire managers light a pile of wood or let the drip torch ignite a field of dry grass, their actions are not done on the spur of the moment. Instead, there is much planning and preparation that must take place beforehand.

For prescribed burns, fire managers must first conduct environmental analysis for these activities according to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Then, they must develop and get approval from the designated official for a Burn Plan which outlines: 1) the conditions necessary to implement the burn (i.e. wind speeds and moisture levels), 2) how the burn will take place (pile or broadcast), and 3) the resources needed to safely conduct the burn.

For resource benefit fires, fire managers refer to the Forest Plan — the document which provides direction for forest management decisions — to determine where these fires can take place.

In addition, for both prescribed burns and resource fires, fire managers continually monitor the fire as it takes place to make sure it burns where, when, and how it is intended to.

Smoke, Wind and Risk

Using fire is not without its drawbacks; it produces smoke, and there is a chance it may escape and burn uncontrollably. Fire managers understand this, and that is why they develop such extensive plans before and during a fire.

One of the biggest factors fire managers must plan for is wind. Too much wind can blow a fire out of control, yet, too little wind can leave the air laden with smoke. Consequently, finding the right conditions for using fire is a difficult task.

One way fire managers have tackled this dilemma is by burning in the morning when the wind is typically calmer, and then stopping in the afternoon when the wind becomes stronger. In this way, the fire burns when the risk of it escaping is the least, and then the afternoon winds can disperse the smoke.

And yet, with all of the planning that goes into carrying out successful fires, there are still occasions where things do not go as planned — sometimes, the fire escapes. In this regard, however, it is important to look at the big picture and remember that fire is a natural process and it has a role in keeping the land in check.

If we try to suppress all fires, we will end up with a landscape that is unhealthy and prone to even larger, more unpredictable fires. So, there isn’t a way to have the best of both worlds — we can’t keep the forests healthy without fire, and we can’t use fire without having some risk. Instead, what we can do is learn from experience, both good and bad, so as to continually improve our fire management practices.

Choosing the right tool for the job

Every job requires the right tool. Gardeners use shovels, not hammers to dig a garden. Likewise, fire managers use specific “tools” to carry-out specific tasks — e.g. using fire suppression practices to protect a community from a nearby wildfire. Does this mean there is only one tool to get the job done? Of course not, most jobs require a variety of tools.

To construct a raised-bed garden, gardeners need a shovel to dig the soil and a hammer to construct the beds. Fire managers operate in a similar manner. To protect a community from the threat of wildfire, they may use suppression practices to extinguish an approaching wildfire and prescribed burns to prevent future wildfires. Thus, successful fire management is about using a combination of fire management practices —or tools — and matching the best tool for the situation.

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