Plan for Proper Equipment in Your Prescribed Burn
By Lorie Woodward Cantu
Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a 6-part series on prescribed burning.
Although fire is an important tool in a range manager's tool box, its role is sometimes misunderstood by the general public, who see only its potential for destruction. In dry times, particularly when burn bans are in effect, county leaders find themselves in the difficult position of balancing the conservation needs of ranching constituents with public safety.
To help facilitate informed discussions and sound decision-making, this series will provide an introduction to the topic and then explore: the effect of prescribed burning on the environment; equipment of a prescribed burn; public relations of a prescribed burn; managing smoke during a prescribed burn; and safety practices of a prescribed burn.
Conducting a prescribed burn requires a lot of planning, but not nearly as much equipment as some might expect.
"While having the right equipment is important, planning is the key to conducting a successful prescribed burn," John Weir, research associate in the Department of Natural Resource and Ecology Management at Oklahoma State University, says.
To begin, range managers should determine their goals and objectives for the burn.
"Prescribed fire can accomplish a lot of different things, so it's important for range managers to know exactly why they are conducting the burn," Weir says. "Do they want to improve wildlife habitat? Or forage quality? Or do they want to knock back woody invaders? Knowing what they want to accomplish will help them determine how and when they will conduct the burn."
Next, range managers must designate the area they want to burn, he says. Will an entire ranch's acreage, multiple pastures or a single pasture be burned or just a portion of the pasture?
While the burn area is being identified, range managers will also be considering the placement of fire breaks. Will they have to be created by disking or bulldozing? Or are they naturally occurring, such as a river or a lake or some other topographical border? Or do they already exist, such as a road or cultivated fields?
Once the area to be burned is determined, the range managers should create a fire plan — a detailed document that helps prescribed burners consider every aspect of the proposed burn, he says. Personnel from NRCS and the Extension service are 2 good sources of information about fire plans.
"A good fire plan will help you work through exactly how you are going to burn your piece of ground and who needs to be involved," Weir says. For instance, the fire plan should identify the fire boss, the person who will be in charge of conducting the prescribed burn and making the important decisions on the ground.
"Fire bosses have special training and have acquired experience with prescribed burns. They may or may not be the landowner.
"The fire plan can also serve as a communications check list, reminding the burn crew to notify neighbors, local authorities and the local fire service.
"Good communication is the best way to avoid problems with neighbors and local community leaders," Weir says. "People don't like to be surprised by reports of smoke and flames."
The fire plan will also establish the parameters for the weather, identify the equipment and people needed, he says. "There is no cookbook approach to prescribed burning. There is no formula for determining how many people need to be involved. Each plan is dictated by the needs of the specific piece of land that is to be burned," he says. "Some units, because of location and topography, can be burned safely with 2 people, while others require a big crew and a lot of equipment."
Plan for the proper equipment
Regardless of the size of the fire, prescribed burning requires some basic equipment, Weir says. Range managers must acquire a source of ignition, such as a drip torch or propane burner. These can be purchased or borrowed from other range managers or agencies, such as conservation districts or the local burn association.
Many times existing ranch equipment can be repurposed. For instance, a pear burner can be used to ignite a prescribed fire or a cattle sprayer can become a mobile water source.
It is important to have multiple, mobile sources of water, Weir says. The number needed depends on the size and complexity of the burn.
Some water sources need to be larger, such as a 100-plus-gallon cattle sprayer, while others can be smaller such as the 15-gallon spray tanks mounted on the back of ATVs often used to spot-treat brush.
Although these sprayers are normally used for chemical application, it is safe to repurpose them as a water source for the prescribed burns, he says. In addition, the ATVs allow burn managers to scout the perimeter of the burn and put out any spot fire.
A weather monitoring kit or instrument that allows the fire boss to know the exact weather conditions at any given time at the exact burn location is another asset.
"The fire boss will be monitoring the weather up to the day the burn is scheduled," Weir says. "But that monitoring is based on forecasts and forecasts are just predictions based on conditions. They can hit or they can miss."
A good fire plan has clearly defined the appropriate weather conditions for the burn, including wind direction, wind speed and humidity. For safety and effectiveness, it's important to know that the conditions are within those parameters, he says.
"Weather conditions can vary a lot over a relatively short distance, so what the meteorologist is reporting in the city can be very different from what the rancher is experiencing out on the ground," Weir says. "Fire bosses can't afford to guess."
Another thing to consider while completing the fire plan is the possibility of the fire escaping.
"If you ride a bicycle long enough, eventually you will fall off," Weir says. "If you conduct enough prescribed burns, eventually one will escape; therefore, you have to consider that possibility and plan for it before it happens. You cannot guarantee that a fire will not escape, but you can be prepared to manage it by knowing exactly how to respond."
The first step for managing an escaped fire is stopping all ignition.
The second step is attacking the escaped fire with the burn crew's equipment and determining whether or not it's having an effect.
If that effort fails, the crew must determine what to do next. For instance, is it appropriate to set a back fire to remove potential fuel?
If that effort fails, the fire boss must make the decision to call in outside firefighters.
"Because prescribed burning is a both a science and an art, you've got to have someone with training, experience and judgment at the helm," Weir says. "When you're working with the forces of nature, the situation changes constantly. Plans have to be scrapped and new ones implemented as the situation changes."
While planning is important, there are many variables beyond the fire boss' control. It's impossible to know whether a burn will happen until moments before the fire is lit.
"It comes down to a single question that only the fire boss can answer: ‘With the weather, people and equipment I have on hand, do I feel comfortable that I could contain a fire if it escaped?' " Weir says. "If the answer is no, then it's time to regroup and burn another day. If the answer is yes, then it's a good day to conduct a burn and move toward achieving your range management objectives."
"Prescribed Burn: Plan for Proper Equipment in Your Prescribed Burn" is from the June 2011 issue of The Cattlemen magazine.