Parts 1 and 2 of this series addressed burn unit preparation and burn planning. This article is designed to provide general considerations for prescribed fire implementation. The ability to implement a safe and effective burn is influenced by an appropriately prepared burn unit and a well written burn plan. However, similar to sports, preparation only gets you so far and you must be willing to execute the game plan and recognize when and where a plan may need to be modified.
Revisiting Fire Breaks and Fuel Loads
Burn unit preparation should be completed well ahead of implementing the burn plan and striking a match. A key step in this process is for the landowner or person in charge of the burn to visit and re-visit the ‘game plan’, both physically and mentally. Simple critical thinking and discussion with others regarding how the burn may progress can provide important opportunities to identify obstacles, hazards, or problem areas well ahead of the fire event. Physically visiting the burn unit several times prior to the burn, will also provide opportunities to identify if and where improvements or adjustments to the plan may be warranted. An example may be a situation where there is a plan to burn a CRP field next to a neighbor’s no-till wheat field. The CRP burn unit might have been prepared by mowing around the perimeter to protect the wheat stubble. In the spring however, it is discovered that the neighbor has disked the stubble and planted a new row crop. In this scenario, the burn plan may need to change to take advantage of this new development in ground conditions. What was a burn edge that required additional resources to protect the wheat stubble, has now become a very simple line where very few resources will be required on the day of the burn. In this scenario, it is likely that the preferred wind direction may now be opposite of what was originally planned, allowing for a reduction or a shift in personnel and equipment. These changes should be noted on the written burn plan and implemented accordingly.
A second scenario may be that, due to a wet spring, there is an opportunity to take advantage of a flowing creek that was dry during the fall. Monitoring the burn unit in the weeks and days leading up to the burn date will allow for planned changes to be communicated to the burn team prior to implementation. Monitoring the fuel load in the burn unit is also important. It is not uncommon during a windy South Dakota winter for nearly half of your planned fuel load to break-off and blow away. Conversely, in wooded areas, fuel arrangement can change. For instance, a blowdown of trees near the burn perimeter could complicate the burn implementation plan, and may require delaying the burn or the need for additional personnel and equipment to prevent the fire escaping from the planned unit.
A fire plan should reflect the best possible wind direction to ensure the safety of burn personnel and neighboring property. The landowner or designated burn boss should begin monitoring weather patterns early in the spring and keep an eye on the various weather options that exist for the burn. In most cases, the wind and weather parameters that have been pre-identified in the burn plan should be adhered to. However, if ground conditions change or if burn perimeters become more or less defensible, one can justify adjustments in wind and weather parameters.
Just as important as the day-of-burn weather is the post-burn weather forecast. For example, if the burn plan calls for a 10 mph south wind to minimize the chance of fire escaping to the north into a neighbor’s property, monitoring the weather forecast for the likelihood of a south wind is the first step. However, if the next day’s weather forecast calls for a 20-30 mph north wind with gusts up to 40 mph, the burn may need to be delayed do diminish the chance of embers blowing out of the burn unit the next day when no resources will be on site to protect the neighbor.
It is important not to plan….or implement…. ‘fire for the sake of fire’. There is generally a fair amount of investment into fire preparation and planning, and as burn opportunities present or disappear, it can be tempting to implement a fire under less than ideal conditions. An obvious critical mistake is to initiate a fire when weather conditions or available personnel or equipment resources are clearly contrary to the written prescription. A subtler mistake is to initiate the fire under allowable prescription parameters, but when goals and objectives have little chance of being achieved due to poor fuel load, wet fuels, or other such conditions.
Personnel and Equipment Management
It is critical to ensure resources and equipment are maintained and ready before implementing a burn. People are important to success, and good communication prior to the fire will ensure smooth operations during the fire. Maintaining direct contact with the team as the burn date approaches and visiting the entire fire unit as a team prior to the burn are critically important steps that allow personnel to create a mental ‘base map’ of the burn unit and surrounding areas. Not only does it increase the team comfort level, but it allows for interaction, questions, and suggestions on potential improvements to the fire implementation plan. Further, pre-visiting the unit dramatically decreases confusion and disorientation among individuals that may not be familiar with the land. When fire and smoke are on the ground, people can become easily disoriented, especially in stressful situations. Equipment should be staged and ready well ahead of the planned start time, and all safety equipment and personal protective equipment should be in place (water, first aid, etc.), including communications, prior to beginning operations.