What Are Prescribed Fires and How Are They Used?
Fire is mighty, but it doesn't have to be an inherent danger. When tamed, it can benefit the environment in ways you might not have considered.
- By Jenna Tsui
- Nov 22, 2019
People throughout history have regarded fire as a natural healing element. It destroys life, but it also burns away the old and makes room for the new. You're likely familiar with this belief if you know the legend of the Phoenix. Surprisingly, this concept is the same in real life, even if it doesn't feature extravagant firebirds.
Forest management teams use prescribed fires to clear away old debris and facilitate growth within ecosystems. These routine burns offer numerous benefits, as long as officials carefully plan for them. Fire is mighty, but it doesn't have to be an inherent danger. When tamed, it can benefit the environment in ways you might not have considered.
What Are Prescribed Fires?
Forest rangers set prescribed fires to remove fuel—such as fallen vegetation—and improve the forest’s ecosystem. Without controlled burning, pests and other invasive species can take over, along with plant diseases. A lack of prescribed fires allows the underbrush to grow wild and free. When wildfires start within this kind of dense greenery, the devastation is far-reaching.
Controlled burning also promotes the survival of stronger plants and fire-resistant species. Dead and weak trees burn away, while the stronger ones reproduce and increase their numbers. Burning underbrush can even encourage soil fertility by adding ash to the ground. Pyrogenic organic matter like charcoal and ash are excellent carbon sinks, and they contain nutrients necessary for soil health. These fire remnants enrich plant life and help it thrive in subsequent seasons.
Their Benefits in Environmentalism
Forest managers use controlled fires as a treatment for various environmental issues. They may burn vegetation to improve an area's biodiversity or prime the soil for planting. Managers do it most often because of fire season—a period where high temperatures and severe storms reign. Lightning can easily set an entire forest ablaze, and dry vegetation will only bolster the spread. Setting a prescribed blaze eliminates this ripe kindling before other fire starters can get to it.
Sometimes fire managers create blazes to improve the aesthetics of a region. Maybe the greenery is overgrown, impossible to navigate, or affected by beetles and brown spot disease. Burning away the vegetation sets a scene for healthier growth and could even facilitate open grazing for livestock.
Some trees grow serotinous cones and can't reproduce without the presence of fire and heat. The cones are glued shut with a sticky resin, and only extreme heat can help them open and spread their seeds. Jack pines, table mountain pines and lodgepole pines are examples of trees possessing these fire-dependent cones.
Prescribed fires have their necessary uses, but sometimes forest managers lose control of them. Local firefighters come to stifle the blaze, but this is life-threatening work. Working with blazing buildings is dangerous, but you can imagine how the stakes increase when surrounded by vegetation. One out of four firefighters must take time off for injuries such as burns or slipped discs.
Where Fire Managers Use Them
Controlled fires usually happen in places that suffer the most from the fire season, like California, Texas and Oregon. Sunny weather is pleasant until it lays the groundwork for wildfires—then it's time for practical solutions. There were 58,083 wildfires across the United States in 2018, with the most occurring in the Southern area. The Geographic Area Coordination Centers describes this region as consisting of Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma and several more states.
Fire managers start controlled burns with several different methods. One includes dropping a potassium and glycol sphere from an aircraft and lighting it up. Teams will most often light sections of a forest with handheld torches, which connect to nearby fuel tanks. In areas where a free-roaming blaze isn't feasible, they gather vegetation into piles and burn it when conditions allow.
Disadvantages of Prescribed Fires
Although prescribed fires have many advantages, they aren't without their dangers. Handling fire is always a risky job, and sometimes it gets out of hand. Even when it remains tame, it can trigger other destructive events.
Setting fires near urban centers sends smoke into nearby communities, which can cause health problems. Irritation and nausea are short-term symptoms. However, exposure to carbon monoxide and fine particles can cause respiratory infection and cardiovascular issues. When prescribed blazes spread too far, people often lose their homes.
Excessively dry climates have made controlled fires more dangerous to conduct because they can spin out of control. Some forest authorities switch to entirely mechanical treatments instead — these involve sweeping up fallen vegetation and trimming trees. Fire managers often use this alongside burning for increased control.
Fires can also cause mudslides and landslides. Tree roots hold soil in place and prevent it from washing away during heavy storms. If too many trees and bushes are blazed away, the ground becomes vulnerable to erosion. The resulting landslides can be deadly for nearby homes and people.
Innovative Ways of Practicing Environmentalism
Fire either cleanses or ravages whatever it contacts. Like any natural element—water, wind and earth—it can be majestic and frightening. It has its purposes in improving ecological management, and depending on the situation, it's a great solution or an error. The outcome depends on the environment, timing, and attention to detail.
Jenna Tsui is a Texan journalist who co-owns The Byte Beat blog. She writes about the latest news in sustainability, culture, technology and more. Check out her work on TBB or follow her on Twitter @jenna_tsui .