7 Safety Tips for a Controlled Burn

Controlled burns can be useful, but even with training and tools, a burn can quickly become a runaway wildfire. Here are safety tips.

by Frank Hyman
PHOTO: John Flannery/Flickr

When the instructor moved to ignite the very thin layer of pine needles on the ground in front of us, no one expected much to happen. But pretty quickly we all took a big step back. Not from fear of flames —we all wore fire-resistant clothes —but from the rapid, intense heat that threatened to singe our eyebrows. Who knew pine needles packed so much fuel?

That demonstration ended a three-day training session on fighting wildfires and managing prescribed burns, also called controlled burns. (If you don’t have enough excitement in your life, these folks are always looking for volunteers!) I learned enough to participate in controlled burns at a local land preserve and even to use a propane burner to do a burn as a sculpture for an art show.

Colonists learned to do prescribed burns from Native Americans with several goals in mind: clearing undergrowth from forests, killing young weed trees in meadows, raising the pH of farm fields, encouraging certain plants over others, and curbing pests and diseases. But in those days of sparse populations, more room for error existed. Even with training and tools, a controlled burn can become a runaway wildfire. Here are a few tips to help you get started with this cost-effective and dramatic farm management tool.

1. Knowledge Is Firepower

Contact your county forester to learn how to do a prescribed burn and to volunteer on a few before you do this yourself. Setting the woods on fire would be a dumb idea for a complete novice. Even if you never do a controlled burn, this knowledge will prove helpful if you ever confront a fire caused by a lightning strike.

2. Share Your Plan

Draw up your burn plan, and share it with your neighbors, the county forester and your nearest firefighters. You might need to call in some help, so make sure that help is prepared.

3. Watch the Weather

Burns can get out of control if the humidity is less than 50 percent, the temperature is above 80 degrees or the wind speed faster than 7 mph. You need a light breeze to move the fire along, but a stiff breeze can push your fire out of control pretty quickly. Monitor the weather closely and consult with your forester regarding wildfire conditions.

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4. Identify or Create Firebreaks

You want the fire to do its work in a defined area with boundaries on every side. An existing road, gravel driveway or pond is a good firebreak. Where those don’t exist, you must create them, either by plowing to expose soil or mowing and removing brush and perhaps wetting mowed grass.

5. Have the Proper Clothes

Polyester or nylon clothes can burn or melt. Cotton and wool clothes are much safer. Nomex is a brand of fire-resistant shirts and pants. You might find less expensive fire resistant clothes at an Army/Navy surplus store. Wear goggles, a bandanna over your nose and mouth, leather boots and leather gloves. Carry drinking water, two-way radios (or cell phones if you have service) and a first aid kit.

6. Have the Proper Tools

Hand tools can create firebreaks and suppress small spot fires (from windblown, burning foliage): shovels, rakes, fire swatters, mattocks and Pulaskis (special firefighting tools that combine an ax and an adze in one head). A leaf blower can clear flammable debris from a firebreak or help speed up a lingering fire. A drip torch or a propane burner will safely get a fire started. If you’re not close enough to use a garden hose, have a backpack water sprayer or a water tank on a trailer with a gas-powered pump so you can suppress wayward fires.

7. Make Safety the No. 1 Priority

Fires are dangerous. On rare occasions, experienced burn bosses have lost control of burns and firefighters have died trying to contain fires. Be prepared to reschedule a burn if conditions aren’t right. Other people’s property and lives will be in your hands. Make sure you know what you’re doing and that you have the plans, people and water to keep a fire within bounds, or hire someone who does. When a controlled burn goes well, few land management activities are as exhilarating or as valuable.

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.


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