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Use of Prescribed Burns to Limit Wildfire Damage

Posted by Suz-Anne Kinney on June 22, 2012

Last year, a result of El Niño conditions and ill-considered public policy, Texas experienced the most forest fire and drought damage in its State’s history; fire destroyed $97 million worth of timber, and as many as 500 million trees were killed by drought. This year, it looks like Texas will have a more mild fire and drought season due to La Niña, which brings more moisture. In the West, however, many predict the fireseason will be more severe than ever.

In general, fires are influenced by three major factors: weather, topography and vegetation. The combinations of these factors determine the risk and likelihood a fire will start, how fast it will burn/spread, the intensity and the direction of the fire, and the ability to extinguish it. If the weather is dry and a thick understory provides ladder fuels, wildfires can quickly get out of control.

One of the best ways to prevent these large, hard-to-control fires is through prescribed burns, also known as hazard reduction burns. This is especially true in pine stands, which can accumulate fuels rapidly. Prescribed burns not only reduce the likelihood of wildfires. According to the USDA Forest Service Southern Region’s publication Guide for Prescribed Fire in Southern Forests, “wildfires that burn into areas where fuels have been reduced by prescribed burning cause less damage and are much easier to control.”

Timberland owners and forest managers know that the use of prescribed burning can improve the quality of the timber in a forest, benefit wildlife by improving habitats and reduce the risk of large-scale out-of-control fires. Some of the best management practices used by timberland owners and managers to reduce the risk, and control the spread, of wildfires include :

  • Thinning of dense vegetation: Thin existing trees so that crowns have space to grow; remove trees that are dead, damaged, overtopped, have forked crowns or are in poor health and quality.
  • Base of tree vegetation removal: Remove vegetation from around the base of the tree and prune to its lower tree branches to remove prevalence of ladder fuels and reduce density of vines.
  • Create adequate firebreaks: Develop a network of natural and man-made firebreaks through the use of logging roads, skid trails, streams and cultivated fields. Firebreaks should be at least 10 to 12 feet wide with no abrupt change in direction. Remove all brush and vines that could carry fire or embers across the break.
  • Conduct an initial burn and then periodic burns. While the intervals could vary, a four-year burning cycle is typical after an initial burn.

Prescribed burns should be closely planned and implemented by specially trained forestry professionals. These professionals understand the ways in which temperature, wind speed and direction, and the humidity levels interact, and they can therefore choose the ideal timing for the burn as well as the technique.

Obtain your State’s wildfire prevention and best practice recommendations from your State Forestry Association, or from the following links:

Many states also have State Prescribed Fire Councils – a listing of all prescribed fire councils by State.

For more information about wildfires and prescribed burns:


Stan Parton


Nice post.  Another control option to remove fuel load is collecting harvest residue as fuel to generate power.  While controlled burns remove the fuel load, this type of open burning results in significantly more emissions than combusting the same material in boilers equipped with air emission control technology.  If as a nation we can develop an energy policy that recognizes the benefits of BioPower then it will be a win-win, saving our forest from devistation while we reduce carbon emissions from power production.


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Ronald B. Halstead, RF 1154 GA


In areas such as South Georgia, Southern Alabama and Florida, burns should be on a two or three year rotation due the sub-tropical nuture of the climate. In normal years, the growth of undrestory in these regions can rapidily put the vegetation beyond the point that is easily controlled by prescribed burning.

Topics: forest management