DCNR Discusses Complexities of Prescribed Fire

Staff from the DCNR Moshannon State Forest District and volunteers from the Moshannon Forest Firefighters Association support crew conduct a prescribed fire operation in an area of grass land within the forest district. The prescribed fire was designed to remove the thick layers of thatch, which will make the area easier for wild turkeys to build their nests. (Photo by Kimberly Finnigan)

PENFIELD – As wildfire season draws to a close on the east coast and gears up in the Midwest, we hear a lot of terms such as “controlled burn” and “prescribed fire,” but what are they? What do they mean and why are they important?

In a recent interview, Fire Forester Joseph Polaski, and Burn Boss Jeremy Hamilton, both with the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources Moshannon State Forest District, discussed prescribed fires and why they are so vital to the health of the forest and public safety.

“A controlled burn is basically anyone who may be burning something, but it’s being monitored” Hamilton said. “It can be something small, like a brush pile or a burn barrel or someone burning grasses off a field, but someone is there keeping an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t get out of control.”

“A prescribed fire is a fire on a larger scale and it’s designed to accomplish a specific goal,” Hamilton said. He said those goals could range anywhere from reducing hazardous fuel, to improving animal habitat, to killing off invasive species or pests, and even to promote the growth of a more desirable plant species.

“There are specific types of plants that benefit from fire,” Polaski said. “Pitch Pine is a good example because their cones are serotinous, they only open in fire or when the weather gets hot enough.”

Polaski said serotinous cones are covered in a waxy resin. The cones can only open if they reach a temperature that is high enough to melt the resin.

When planning a prescribed fire, there’s a lot of work that must take place before DCNR can begin the actual burning.

“We look at the type of vegetation that’s in the area,” Polaski said. “Thick grasses need to be burned every two to five years. The thick thatch makes it hard for turkeys to nest. For timber, that can go a litter longer.”

Polaski said another important consideration is what they want the fire to do. Do they want the fire to just clear off the top layer of vegetation, which requires fast-moving fire, or do they need to completely remove the plant life and burn down into the upper ground layers, which requires slower-moving fire?

Polaski and Hamilton said once a burn site is chosen, they begin to identify the size and complexity of the burn and develop a burn plan.

The burn plan is a written document that must be reviewed and approved by DCNR and several other agencies. The burn plan sets the parameters, the goals, the safety plans and all other information necessary to have a successful burn.

“We identify any natural fire breaks and how to hold the fire in this area,” Polaski said. “We identify the end state, what we want this to look like once the burn is finished. We want to identify the specific objectives and determine what type of fire will remove a set amount of the fuel.”

Polaski and Hamilton stressed that public and firefighter safety is always a top priority when looking to do a prescribed burn.

“A big part of what we’re looking at with safety is smoke mitigation,” Hamilton said. “We have to account for what is in the area and how that smoke is going to impact it.

“For example, if we’re burning near Interstate 80, we have to burn on a day when the wind is blowing in the right direction to keep that smoke from blowing onto the interstate and causing a traffic hazard.”

Hamilton said something as simple as the wind blowing south instead of north can prevent DCNR from doing a prescribed burn that has been planned for years, even if all other conditions have been met.

He said it’s also important to keep the smoke from accumulating over residential areas, where residents could experience breathing problems, or farmland, where the smoke can panic the animals.

Polaski and Hamilton said it can take one to three years just to put a burn plan together and to get all the necessary approvals from the different agencies involved.

Hamilton said the burn plan is a legally-binding contract between the burn boss, who is the individual in charge of overseeing the burn, and the landowner, which in most cases is DCNR, as well as with the owners of land neighboring the area that is going to be burned.

If the fire escapes the control lines and spreads onto adjacent properties, the burn boss can be held criminally and civilly liable for negligence.

“Part of the burn plan evaluates the complexity of the burn and what steps we’ll need to take if the burn gets out of control,” Hamilton said.

“It can be something as simple as having a volunteer fire department on stand-by or having more staff available that can come in if we start having problems.

“The important thing to know about prescribed burns is that it takes a lot of training and experience to do a burn correctly and to make sure it goes the way we want.”

He said prescribed firing operations can be small, just a few acres at a time and involve just one person doing the igniting and three people to watch for “spot fires,” which can be embers or small areas of flame that may escape the main burn and ignite an uncontrolled fire outside of the burn unit.

He said prescribed fires can also be extremely large, involving hundreds of acres, ignition teams in helicopters as well as ignition teams on the ground, and numerous staff members from forestry districts across the state and additional volunteers from trained wildfire support crews.

An employee from DCNR’s Moshannon State Forest District uses a drip-torch to methodically ignite a layer of thick thatch during a prescribed fire operation. The prescribed fire was designed to remove the thatch layer and provide an improved area for wild turkeys to nest (Photo by Kimberly Finnigan)

Regardless of size, the parameters in the burn plan must be followed. Hamilton said if the fire burns too hot, it can kill or damage the plant species they are trying to promote or even sterilize the soil, but if it burns too cool, it won’t achieve the results they were hoping for.

He said if a burn is in progress, and the parameters aren’t being met, an experienced burn boss will not hesitate to shut down the burn.

“That can happen for a lot of different reasons,” Hamilton said.  “If the fuel moisture is too high, or if the relative humidity is too high, you’re not going to meet your objectives. All you’re doing at that point is wasting time and money.”

He said waiting until later in the day to start the burn can ensure the parameters are met. He said the same is true if the conditions become too windy or dry while the prescribed burn is taking place.

He said it’s critical to stop and wait until conditions are right. Sometimes it can mean changing the way the igniters are lighting the vegetation to get a hotter, slower-moving fire.

Hamilton said it’s vital to monitor not only the weather and fuel conditions, but the size and speed of the flames, the wind speed and direction and all other parameters outlined in the burn plan before, during and after the prescribed fire.

He said a lot of prescribed fire operations are bringing in trained Fire Effects Monitors, known as FEMOs, who are responsible for monitoring the fire, recording data and ensuring the fire is staying within the set parameters.

The FEMO also takes weather measurements and maintains communication with the burn boss to keep them informed if something isn’t going the way it should.

Once the burn is completed, the FEMO will take observations and measurements to determine whether the burn was a success and report back to the burn boss.

DCNR will revisit the burn area two years after the burn occurred and again five years after.

“Prescribed fires have to be done very carefully and methodically,” Polaski said. “There’s a lot of ways a burn can fail. It’s so much more than just lighting a fire and letting it burn.

“It takes a long time just to put a plan together and it can take even longer before we can do the actual burn. The burn plans are reviewed by multiple agencies, there’s a lot of safety factors that have to be considered for the public as well as for the people doing the burn. It’s something that should be done by people who use fire on a regular basis.”

“Prescribed fires are becoming something we’re seeing a lot more around here,” Hamilton said. “It’s a way of life in the southern and western states because it has to be done in order to keep the fuels down and to avoid explosive fire behaviors like we’ve been seeing recently.

“We’ve gotten too good at putting fires out and because of that, there’s more fuel available and these fires are burning hotter. Around here, it’s starting to be used more and more as a way to preserve the biodiversity and health of the forest.”

Pictured is a stand of scrub-oak in the Moshannon State Forest District as it appears prior to a prescribed fire operation. (Provided photo)

Pictured is the same stand of scrub-oak following a prescribed fire operation. The fire removed much of the less-desirable plant species and allowed younger, healthier plants to grow. The younger oaks will produce more acorns that will provide food for wildlife. The fire has also made room for blueberry, blackberry and raspberry plants to grow, which will also provide food for wildlife. (Provided Photo)

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