We’ve provided video and written content covering the ins-and-outs of controlled burns, and we’ve often touted the benefits of this land-management tool. We say it often, but there is no single tool that can do as much for your property and its wildlife habitat as prescribed fire.
Still, for many, burning a property can be intimidating. Landowners don’t want to make a mistake by mismanaging a burn. And, as a result, we’ve received many questions and comments requesting more details on how to conduct a controlled burn safely. You guys are looking to mitigate risk, and many of you need to hear less about the benefits and more about how to actually do it.
It’s a simple process. Meaning, if you break it down into steps, no single step is difficult. But, on the whole, a prescribed fire requires great awareness: Awareness of wind speed and direction, how your burn unit is situated in contrast to the wind direction, how to assess fuel load and other details that are important. Each detail informs your plan and, once you have a plan that’s thoughtful and front loaded with awareness of your environment, the chances of mismanaging a burn goes down significantly.
We’ve collected some of the most common questions about how to conduct a controlled burn and the answers provide basic information to get you started. We’ve also listed additional resources for further reading at the end of this Q&A.
Getting Started: How to Conduct a Controlled Burn
Q. What weather factors are most important when planning a controlled burn?
A. Temperature, humidity and wind.
In a recent LandBeat episode featuring a controlled burn on a Missouri farm, Land and Legacy co-founder Matt Dye noted the weather conditions, which he framed as ideal for a controlled burn. “We’ve got clear blue skies, a great fire condition, 5-to-8-mph winds, so nothing too gusty, pretty consistent.”
Still, you’ll be hard pressed to find information citing an optimal wind speed, because every burn is different depending on factors unique to your location and how your tract of land is situated. Dye talks viewers through how the wind and terrain inform how they’ll use and manage the fire as they’re burning the unit. You can watch the full episode here.
For temperature, a well-controlled fire is burned when outside temperatures are between 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity should be moderate: usually between 30% to 50%.
Q. What’s a short list of equipment that’s needed for a prescribed fire?
A. Drip torch or lighter, rake, pumper units/sprayers, leaf blower.
Make sure your sprayer is capable of spraying 125 pounds of pressure and at least an output of six gallons per second.
Watch this LandBeat episode for more detail on equipment and tools.
Q. What’s the leaf blower for?
A. Leaf blowers are excellent tools for prescribed fire management. They’re effective in clearing a line down to the bare mineral soil, creating a firebreak. And in timber, a leaf blower — paired with rakes — can create adequate firebreaks on the fly. Leaf blowers, when in areas with light fuel loads, can also be used to suppress fire.
Q. What is a burn plan?
A. Simply stated, a burn plan ensures you’ve got your ducks in a row before you pick up the drip torch. It’s essentially a prescription for your land. If you’d like to watch a step-by-step video on planning your controlled burn, LandBeat features the University of Tennessee’s Dr. Craig Harper as he and Whitetail CEO/Principal Owner Dan Perez walk you through how to get started. There are also many examples and templates of burn plans. You can find a few here, here and here.
NOTE: In most places, you will need a state or local burning permit, and in some cases, you have to be certified to conduct a controlled burn. Plan to fulfill these requirements well in advance of your burn date. And at the very least, we always recommend notifying the local fire department of your location and burn initiative.
Q. How do you create a firebreak?
A. Ideally, you’ll want to clear a line, or firebreak, down to the soil. Clear the break of leaves and any other debris that could be consumed as fuel by the fire. To get step-by-step instructions and visuals on how to create firebreaks in timber, watch the LandBeat episode, “How to Properly Create Firebreaks in Timber,” featuring Matt Dye and Adam Keith, co-founders of Land & Legacy.
Q. How wide does the firebreak need to be?
A.Typically a firebreak in a timber burn should be 4-to-5-feet wide.
NOTE: Your fuel — anything that will feed a fire like downed timber, leaves and other debris on the forest floor — will determine the width of your firebreak. If your burn unit is loaded with dead timber, for instance, a wider firebreak may be warranted.
Q. Do I have to notify neighbors or any county officials about a planned prescribed fire?
A. Burn regulations and permits vary by location. But regardless of what’s required by the regulations in your area, you’ll want to notify any neighbor or owner of adjoining property who may be affected by the burn. Most burn plan templates will prompt you to consider social impacts of your prescribed fire including impacts from smoke, possible traffic problems and, if problems arise, contact information for neighbors, the fire department and public safety.
What to Expect Once You’ve Burned Your Property
Q. How often should I burn my property?
A. Every three to four years should be the aim.
If you watch the LandBeat episode, “Land & Legacy Live Consultation: Burning, Part 5,” Adam Keith and Matt Dye, co-founders of Land & Legacy, talk about dividing your property into burn units and setting up a rotation so you’re burning yearly, but each unit is burned every three years.
The episode was filmed on The Hunting Public’s / Aaron Warbritton’s family farm in Northern Missouri. In the previous episode, Part 4, we learn that the last time Warbritton burned the property was 10 years before. And in the footage, you can see how thick the understory has become. As a result, the habitat attracts and provides ideal cover for predators, but a hindrance to wildlife, particularly wild turkeys in this case, which are now no longer seen on the property. The understory and wildlife openings are simply too grown up.
Q. I’ve burned my property, but the fescue keeps returning. What’s the most effective way to rid a property of that?
A. First, why is it recommended that fescue be removed from a property to improve habitat for wildlife?
“I visit a lot of properties across the South each year. Without exception, there is one recommendation I have given everyone — get rid of the tall fescue and/or bermudagrass,” Dr. Craig Harper of the University of Tennessee says. He’s written and filmed a ton of stuff over the years about fescue and how to remove it.
Harper says these grasses — along with other grasses: orchardgrass, timothy, bluegrass, johnsongrass, crabgrass, goosegrass, bahiagrass, vaseygrass, velvetgrass, japangrass, and, certainly, cogongrass — fail to provide quality cover, forage or seed for wildlife. Plus, none are native to North America, some are extremely invasive and they all displace more desirable plants.
“Yes, I know deer may eat some of them at various times of the year, turkeys may eat bahiagrass seed, and quail and several other birds may eat crabgrass or johnsongrass seed,” he says. “But why have a plant(s) that provides marginal cover, forage, or seed take up space where more desirable plants could grow?”
Timing is key to removing fescue and other non-native grasses.
“It is absolutely critical to get the site ready, and spray at the correct time,” he says. “If you try to spray a field of tall fescue or bermudagrass with plant debris from the previous growing season over the field, you are not going to be happy with the results. ‘Clean’ the field by burning, haying or grazing. You want to spray fresh growing grass, not senescent stems and leaves from last year.”
Q. Will a controlled burn wipe out my deer cover before hunting season?
A. “If you’re concerned about, ‘should I burn or should I worry about that cover,’ the perennials are gonna respond faster and jump out of the ground and provide the height structure you’re looking for,” says Matt Dye of Land and Legacy on “Prescribed Fire: When Will You See Results?”
On a property in central Alabama, featured in the aforementioned LandBeat episode, grasses and forbes have already responded just 2 to 3 weeks after the landowners conducted a controlled burn on the tract. And Dye notes that the property is already usable for wildlife.
“By the end of the growing season, this site and this stand is gonna offer cover, it’s gonna respond with 3-to-4-foot-tall cover in one growing season,” he says. “[The cover] may be a little thinner than in years past, but the height structure will respond in one growing season.”