Controlled Burns: What They Are and How to Do Them Safely



by Laura Mueller

Fire isn’t always a bad thing. Some ecosystems—including, possibly, the ecosystem that exists on all or part of your land—greatly benefit from controlled burns. And when performed by a trained team of fire experts, this practice can make a big difference in how healthy, safe, and even prosperous your land is over time.

Also known as prescribed burns, controlled burns are used by both the National Forest Service and individual towns and property owners to optimize land usage and ensure that a piece of land has just the right balance of resources. They may be done annually or just on an as-needed basis, though in either case these types of burns are considered essential to the long-term health of the land.

Think that your property might benefit from a controlled burn? Here’s what to know about what controlled burns can help achieve, plus tips for ensuring that they’re performed as safely as possible.

Benefits of a Controlled Burn

Controlled burns do two big things: they help eliminate the unwanted and they help make room for the wanted.
In practice, this plays out in a number of different ways, including:

• Preventing overcrowding of plants, trees, and roots
• Eliminating invasive, damaged, or non-native plants
• Eliminating certain pests or diseases
• Eliminating hazardous fuel sources that could spark extreme and uncontrolled fires
• Recycling nutrients into the soil for improved future growth
• Improving habitats for certain species, including those that are endangered or threatened
• Promoting the fresh growth of new trees and plants

For these reasons, controlled burns have become a crucial part of forest management, especially in areas where failure to do so could lead to serious consequences like loss of trees and plant life to invasive pests and diseases or the possibility of untamed wildfires.

Tips for Doing a Controlled Burn on Your Property

The use of controlled burns isn’t relegated to national forests and county-owned land. Many private owners rely on controlled burns to keep their properties at their best, though it’s crucial that you do so safely and with care.

Here are some tips to ensure that your controlled burn is a productive one—and that it doesn’t get out of hand.

1. Work with a professional fire team.

Controlled burns can be done by individual property owners in most states (provided you have a permit). But if you’ve never overseen a controlled burn before, then the more expert help you have the better. Call up your local fire department to find out what resources are available.

2. Get the timing right.

The best time to do a controlled burn is in the early spring or late fall. That’s because weather is a key factor in providing the right conditions for a safe and productive fire, including both temperature and wind on the day of the burn and the days following it.

3. Create firebreaks.

Firebreaks are essential, since they prevent the burn from spreading further than you want it to. Most firebreaks consist of a wetted area on the perimeter of the burn, and will still require oversight from a designated extinguisher who can make sure the firebreak is doing its job and respond right away if it’s not.

4. Be thorough in putting the fire out.

When you’re done, check your property carefully to make sure there are no remaining remnants of the fire—a smoldering branch could be all that’s needed to set the area aflame again.

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