Planning a Safe Prescribed Burn
By Lorie Woodward Cantu
Editor's Note: This is the final 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 provided an introduction to the topic and then explored 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.
When conducting a prescribed burn, safety is job No. 1.
"The bottom line for a successful prescribed burn is safety," says Kent Ferguson, state rangeland management specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Texas. "In the final analysis, safety is more important than the results of the actual burn."
John Weir, research associate in the Department of Natural Resources and Ecology Management at Oklahoma State University, says, "In our culture, people are afraid of fire, and those who don't understand prescribed burning question its necessity. If we are to continue using this valuable rangeland management tool, we have to do everything in our power to ensure that our safety track record remains strong."
Ferguson says safety is a reason the burn plan is so important. The plan addresses the prescription, which gives the specific weather parameters that are appropriate for a specific burn site, he says. It also provides the firing order, job descriptions, equipment lists, and contact information for the fire department and public safety officers.
"The basis for a safe burn is a good plan and an experienced burn team who understand it," Ferguson says.
Weir noted that the key for understanding is communication.
Communicate for safety
"Clear communication is the biggest safety issue," Weir says. It is imperative that members of the burn crew can communicate with each other throughout the burn. It is equally vital that the burn boss or the designated representative has communicated with the fire department, the public safety agencies, and the neighbors prior to the burn, and has the ability to communicate with them, if the need arises, during the burn, he says.
While safety underlies every element of a prescribed burn, it is helpful to consider safety in 3 broad categories: public safety, crew safety and fire escape response.
When it comes to public safety, the burn boss has 2 primary concerns, smoke management and fire escape prevention.
"Smoke management takes precedence because smoke has the greatest potential to impact the most people," Weir says. Thick, low smoke can affect public health and decrease visibility on roadways, increasing the potential for deadly accidents.
To avoid smoke problems, it is important to burn only on days when the mixing height allows the smoke to rise at least 1,500 feet (which is a good theoretical minimum that may vary depending on the topography and other factors of the burn site) above the ground, and the wind speed and direction must carry the smoke away from roads and/or sensitive receptors such as hospitals and nursing homes.
In case the conditions change and the smoke settles out on a road, it is a good idea to have people, either from the burn crew or local public safety organizations, available to flag traffic or post warning signs alerting motorists of potential danger, Weir says.
When it comes to fire escape prevention, ensuring that the weather conditions on the day of the burn fall within the prescription for the burn site is vital, Ferguson says. If the conditions are questionable, it is up to the burn boss to postpone the burn and reschedule it for a day when the conditions are more favorable for controlling the burn.
"As a burn boss, there is nothing more difficult than planning a burn for months, preparing the burn site, gathering the crew and equipment, and then having to say, ‘No go,' on the morning of the burn," Ferguson says. "It's a big responsibility, which explains why the burn boss needs to be thoroughly qualified and very experienced. When there's a hard decision to make, err on the side of caution."
Another important factor is the evaluation and preparation of the burn site. In the period leading up to the burn, install any necessary mineral soil fire breaks or black lines.
To maximize the fire breaks' effectiveness, work with the elements present on the burn site, Weir says. For instance, if one neighbor has a cultivated field and the other neighbor has a CRP (conservation reserve program) field, establish your burn site and wind parameters, so that the prescribed burn will travel toward the cultivated field, minimizing the fire's chance of escape.
Immediately before the burn, it's a good idea to examine all the fire breaks and black lines to ensure that they are free of volatile fuel, Ferguson says.
"You don't want to set the fire and then discover that a dead juniper tree has fallen on a fence or across your fireguard," Ferguson says.
"On a prescribed burn there are jobs for everyone," Weir says. "It's important, though, to match each job to a crew member's level of experience and fitness level." Working with fire can be stressful and physically taxing, particularly if the weather conditions become unfavorable or the burn escapes.
Once the appropriately experienced crew is assembled, the next step is to ensure that everyone understands the burn plan and its execution. Ferguson suggests meeting as a group prior to the burn and going through the plan to make sure that everyone is clear about their responsibilities and that no small, but pertinent, details are overlooked. In a best case scenario, this will be the second or third time that the crew members have had a chance to discuss the impending burn, Ferguson says.
As part of the pre-burn prep, Ferguson also likes to take the group on a pre-burn site visit to orient them to the property, allowing them to identify the burn perimeter and the location of roads, fences, gates and water sources.
In addition, Weir says that the meeting gives the burn boss an opportunity to "be sure that the crew is safe in their actions, their equipment and their clothing."
When it comes to actions, the crew should respect the authority of the burn boss, Ferguson says. This person looks at the big picture and bears the ultimate responsibility for the burn.
"A prescribed burn is no time for someone to decide to freelance," Ferguson says. "Everything has been put in the plan in a specific order for a specific reason. If conditions change, the fire boss will change the instructions to accommodate the conditions."
It can't be assumed that all equipment is operable, Ferguson says. It's important to make sure that all the vehicles start and have plenty of fuel, that all the sprayers are primed and ready to go, and that all the radios are working and have fresh batteries.
Weir says, "In a perfect world, every member of the crew would have a radio, but the world is real and not perfect." If there are not enough radios, there should be a clear understanding among team members of who is disseminating information to whom. Clear channels of communication ensure team members can respond rapidly to changing conditions or to an escaped fire. It also ensures that they don't inadvertently get into trouble by wandering into dangerous areas.
Another pre-burn consideration is the crew members' clothing. While it is not necessary for crew members to be outfitted in fire-retardant safety clothing, it is important that they be dressed in natural fibers that have low flammability.
Ferguson says, "Synthetic fabrics like nylon and rubber will melt right off your body. Everyone should have leather boots; leather gloves; and heavy cotton, long-sleeve shirts and jeans or pants."
Fire escape response
"If you conduct enough burns, you will have an escape," Weir says. "The key is having a plan in place to deal with it. Once the fire escapes, you don't have time to come up with a well-thought-out response."
A general escape response plan would include these steps:
- Stop any additional ignition, until the escape is extinguished.
- Try to put out the escaped fire with the manpower and equipment that is on hand.
- If that fails, the burn boss will determine whether to set a backfire or take additional aggressive steps to contain the escape with the existing crew or to call the fire department.
- If it is necessary to call the fire department, the burn boss — and no one else — will make that call. The burn boss should have all of the appropriate numbers easily accessible and be able to give clear directions to the fire personnel.
Laws differ among the states about whose authority takes precedence at the site of an escaped fire, Weir says. Therefore, it's important to have established a good working relationship with the fire department personnel before you need them.
"Most of the general public don't realize how safe prescribed burns are when they are properly conducted," Weir says. "We, as the prescribed burn community, have to establish our safety record because, as we know, the risk of burning is much smaller than the risk posed by not burning when there is abundant fuel. Fuel will burn, so isn't it better to have it burning under ideal conditions instead of roaring through the country as a wildfire?"
"Prescribed Burn: Planning a Safe Prescribed Burn" is from the December 2011 issue of The Cattlemen magazine.