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Controlled Burn| August 2011

 

Controlled Burn

Prescribed Burning Public Relations

By Lorie Woodward Cantu

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in a 6-part series on prescribed burning, which was formerly called controlled 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.

Despite the fact its members notified all the appropriate officials, the Kimble County Prescribed Burn Association (KCPBA) had a problem. Every time an association member conducted a prescribed burn, the sheriff's department, the county judge's office and the volunteer fire department got several phone calls from county residents. Concerned citizens were calling either to report the fire or get more information.

Officials were questioned. Citizens were confused. And prescribed burning was catching some unnecessary heat. Scott Richardson, a director of the KCPBA who is also a retired teacher, offered a solution — education.

Working with the other directors, Richardson helped create a local outreach effort that has been described as a "model for other prescribed burn associations to follow." The KCPBA has gone further than simply notifying the appropriate local officials and affected neighbors.

"Prescribed burning has a public relations problem because the public fears fire," Richardson said. "The only way to allay fears is to help people understand why we use fire as a range management tool, how an improved landscape benefits the public and what we do to ensure safety."

The first thing Richardson did was write a series of articles that appeared in the local newspaper. The topics included the historic role of fire in maintaining grasslands, the role of prescribed fire in current range management, and the planning and implementation of a prescribed burn.

Through this series, KPCBA developed its clear messages that have been repeated in its ongoing communications. The organization wants people to understand that fire has been part of the Edwards Plateau ecosystem throughout history. Prescribed fire mimics the effects of wildfires past, and is a natural, cost-effective way for landowners to help manage woody invaders like ashe juniper, while encouraging the re-establishment of native grasses.

Removing cedar, a known water hog, and improving grass cover increases water percolation into the Edwards Aquifer, improving the water supply for area residents. In addition, prescribed fire also helps remove heavy fuel loads and can actually help prevent wildfires.

The organization emphasizes the steps its members take to make these burns as safe as possible, including filing a detailed burn plan, having a specially trained burn boss and plenty of experienced help the day of the burn, taking management precautions such as installing black lines and burn lines, notifying local and regional government and fire suppression officials, and waiting for the appropriate weather conditions.

These articles, which appeared in the summer of 2009, were followed up with reminder articles at the beginning of the winter burn season, which runs from December through March. The follow-up articles were designed to reinforce the earlier messages of the KPCBA, and to let people know that when conditions were right, landowners would be conducting burns.

"We got a positive response to the articles," Richardson said. "Both local officials and citizens appreciated having solid information. We found that the more people knew, the less the phone rang when our members started to conduct burns."

The KCPBA, which is a chapter of the Edwards Plateau Prescribed Burn Association, maintains a white board calendar system at its central office, where all of the filed burn plans are listed. Before members can conduct a prescribed burn, they must complete and submit a detailed burn plan. The Edwards Plateau Prescribed Burn Association maintains a complete burn calendar on its website.

The calendar is a central source of information, allowing the KCPBA to allocate manpower and equipment. It also provides the basis of another communication tool. During burn season, the KCPBA runs a series of ads in the local paper that lists the name and general location of every ranch that is approved to host a burn during the upcoming month.

"The goal of the ads is to help people, when they see smoke on the horizon, differentiate between a prescribed fire and a wildfire," Richardson said. For instance, if people know that XYZ Ranch in southwestern Kimble County is scheduled to conduct a prescribed burn between Feb. 10 and 20, they are a lot less likely to panic if they see smoke in that part of the county during that time, he said. The ads are funded using a portion of the KCPBA's annual membership dues.

To increase the communication between its members, the KCPBA also maintains an email listserve. Any member can send a message to the entire group with the touch of a key. According to Richardson, most members use it to enlist help when they are conducting a burn, but he is working to expand its use.

"We are encouraging our members to send a message to the group whenever they light a prescribed burn on their place," Richardson said. "Then every one of our members knows exactly what is going on and is prepared to answer any questions that might arise. For instance, my neighbor, who is not an association member, knows that I'm involved in the KPCBA and, if he sees smoke, he calls me. If I know that another member is conducting a prescribed burn, I can answer his question and prevent a potential misunderstanding or unnecessary concern."

The KPCBA's education outreach expands beyond media efforts, Richardson said. Last year, the organization hosted a prescribed burn workshop and an accompanying demonstration burn. It was open to anyone who had an interest in prescribed burning, not just landowners.

"As an organization, we wanted people to have first-hand knowledge," Richardson said. "We wanted them to hear from the scientists and the practitioners, and then to see a prescribed burn. When people see a dry cedar tree explode when the fire reaches it, the term ‘fuel volatility' takes on a clear meaning. Concepts like black lines and back fires are easier to understand once someone has seen them."

While no one questions the value of education, it is fair to ask: Have these efforts directly benefited KPCBA and prescribed burning in the local area? The answer appears to be yes.

According to Richardson, the association's membership has increased. As the level of public attention has increased, so has the quality of the burns.

"More people with more education equal better practices," Richardson said.

The list of educated members has grown to include 2 Kimble County Commissioners, 1 of whom is a director. The county judge, who is a local landowner, is also an informed supporter of prescribed burning. Their interest and knowledge has sparked an interest in their fellow county leaders.

Today, members of the KPCBA have the ability to conduct a prescribed burn even when the county is under a burn ban, because the local authorities understand that the conditions necessary to conduct a prescribed burn are also the same ones that can prompt a burn ban.

"It's a privilege and a responsibility," Richardson said.

Neither of which the KPCBA takes for granted. After a wildfire charred 10,000 acres in Kimble County in April, the secretary/treasurer of the KPCBA wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. In the letter, he thanked the firefighters who risked their lives to save the lives and property of others. Then he outlined what people should do to remove the excessive fuel load that made this fire so difficult to manage in Kimble County's rough terrain.

The key to public relations, as the KPCBA has learned, is seizing teachable moments.


"Prescribed Burn: Prescribed Burning Public Relations" is from the August 2011 issue of The Cattlemen magazine.