Wildfires are raging across the country. In 2021 alone, more than 35,000 fires have burned across 2.6 million acres of land. As the summer continues, more fires are expected to crop up. This scares many people. But some forest fires are actually a good thing. Controlled burns can have benefits for plants, animals, and humans alike.

What is a prescribed fire, and why is it performed? What is the difference between controlled burning and back burning? How can you perform a controlled burn?

Answer these questions and you can prevent fires and help forests today. Here is your quick guide.

What Is Controlled Burning?

Controlled burning is a fire intentionally lit by fire experts in order to restore the health of ecosystems. Fires occur naturally in wildlands and wooded areas on numerous occasions.

Most of these fires are good. They kill invasive plants that compete with native ones for survival. They burn away undergrowth, allowing sunlight to reach the soil and low-lying plants.

Fire is also beneficial to animals. It can destroy old trees, leaving new ones for bugs and birds to make habitats.

Some places may go years or decades without a natural fire. This means that human beings must set a controlled fire. If they don’t step in, invasive plants can cause a forest to die.

A controlled fire does have benefits for human beings. It destroys areas where high amounts of fuel are building up. It can help create firelines, making a cleared strip that flames cannot burn through.

You may hear the terms, “prescribed burning” or “prescribed fires.” These all refer to the same thing. The Forest Service amongst other institutions uses them interchangeably.

What Is Back Burning?

Back burning is a completely distinct process from controlled burning. It has no substantial benefits for wildlife. It is done when a wildfire is approaching a specific area in order to repel the fire.

Fire officials light fires out from containment lines. The fires spread forward and burn through fuel before reaching the wildfire. This keeps the wildfire from continuing toward a community.

Both controlled burning and back burning involves deliberate fire-setting. But controlled burning is a component of conservation, while back burning is done as a last resort.

It can backfire during significant wildfires or windy days, so it is rarely used. When it is done, it is done at night so there is less heat and wind.

Controlled Burn Methods

Indigenous Americans were the first to use controlled burning. They lit fires at natural firebreaks like a creek or canyon. They would then light a small fire and let it burn through the woods on its own.

The Forest Service engages in similar practices, including with Indigenous support. For areas that are hard to reach on foot, they drop flammable substances from a helicopter. When the substances strike the ground, they burst into flames.

Large and flat sections may require using a fire torch. An all-terrain vehicle drops fuel on the ground, and the torch burns along the path.

Controlling burning is only viable in areas with open and flammable wood. It is very difficult to burn in dense forests, and it is nearly impossible in wet areas. The lack of oxygen and dry surfaces makes it hard for fire to sustain itself.

How to Perform Controlled Burns

You can perform a controlled burn, but you need to be diligent about it. You must develop a plan of where you will start the fire and where you think it will spread.

It does not matter how big you think the fire will be. Smoke from a small fire can affect air quality miles away. Even one oversight can cause a fire to spread outward and damage natural resources.

Consult with a fire ecologist on the impacts of the fire on plants and animals. You should also touch base with your local government. Anyone who lives nearby should have ample opportunity to evacuate.

Plan a specific day that you will burn on and monitor the grounds closely. If the ground is too wet, you should delay your burn to a different day. If it is going to be too windy, you should also delay.

A firebreak should be established around the perimeter of the fire. No flammable objects should cross the break, including overhanging tree branches.

You and other fire experts should position yourselves around the perimeter of the fire. Each person should be equipped with fire suppression tools and portable radios.

At least one person should be positioned above the fire. They can be on a helicopter, or they can watch from a guard tower. They should monitor the direction of the fire and smoke and advise the team on what is happening.

You should light a series of head fires that burn toward the firebreak. Fire proceeds downwind, so you should position them accordingly. Remain in communication with your team and give updates on what is going on.

Know How Controlled Burns Happen

Controlled burns destroy for good reason. They remove invasive species and decaying habitats from a forest, letting native animals live easier.

Back-burning is a last resort done to stop an out-of-control fire. It destroys an area that has fuel for the wildfire.

Fire experts can light small fires and let them spread out, or they can drop substances into wooded areas. Make a plan and contact the authorities before lighting your fire. Watch it as it burns.

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