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How Controlled Burns Work

In 2002, Oregon firefighter Jose Martinez put out a hotspot from a controlled burn set to protect residents from an encroaching wildfire.
In 2002, Oregon firefighter Jose Martinez put out a hotspot from a controlled burn set to protect residents from an encroaching wildfire.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In southern New Jersey, there's a 1.1-million-acre (445,154-million-hectare) protected forest, the largest contiguous woodland in the 45-million-person hyper-city known as the Eastern Seaboard. This forest is called Pinelands (or, alternatively, the Pine Barrens).

Here's a nightmare scenario: On a dry day in late spring, one of the many wildfires that spring up there takes off, outstripping firefighters' efforts to contain it. Forty-mile-per-hour (64 kilometer-per-hour) winds out of the west send embers sailing miles ahead of the fire, igniting trees when they touch down. The fire burns for as long as the winds blow, killing hundreds of residents and consuming billions of dollars' worth of property.

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Five hundred thousand people live in the Pinelands, jammed in among the trees of a forest that some have described as a conflagration waiting to happen, a fire that could make the record books as the worst wildfire in modern U.S. history. The scenario described above isn't unlikely; it's the prediction of many experts.

One of the suggested means of preventing such a catastrophe is completely counterintuitive — fight fire with fire. Some people are already doing it. One landowner in the Pinelands, for instance, burns roughly 1,000 acres (405 hectares) every year in his attempt to forestall a potential apocalypse [source: Dickman].

But how can lighting small fires prevent bigger ones?

Lynn Wolfe uses a drip torch to light dry grasses to burn a section of Maine's Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge. Burning the ground cover in the state's wildlife refuges is done on a five-year cycle and encourages the growth of plants like Beach Plum.
Lynn Wolfe uses a drip torch to light dry grasses to burn a section of Maine's Rachel Carson Wildlife Refuge. Burning the ground cover in the state's wildlife refuges is done on a five-year cycle and encourages the growth of plants like Beach Plum.
John Ewing/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Controlled burning, sometimes called "prescribed burning" or "suppression fire," is an ancient practice used in all parts of the world to manage land. Humans have been starting fires for at least a million years, and ever since then we've been putting it to good use.

In North America, for instance, historical sources, taken together with the archaeological record, appear to show that native peoples made extensive use of fire to drive out game and to clear savannahs and prairies. Europeans arriving in the 16th century brought their own traditions of controlled burning to create fields for grazing and cultivation.

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Immigrants' origins informed the methods they deployed. Whereas many of the Europeans who showed up in the Northeast came from regions where controlled burning was less common, the settlers who populated much of the South sailed from Scotland, Ireland and rural parts of western England. These new residents tended to have extensive experience using fire as a tool to shape and manage the landscape to promote herding and hunting. Their approach happened to coincide with the practices deployed by the Native Americans they displaced, resulting in a continuation of the use of controlled burning in the South.

After the Civil War, when wealthy northerners bought up many of the old plantations to use as hunting preserves, they brought their traditions of fire suppression with them. But suppressing fires promoted the growth of a woody understory, which in turn led to the decline in the hunters' favorite game: the bobwhite quail.

Puzzled, the plantation owners began talking to government wildlife experts. These discussions led to a 1920s study headed by one Herbert L. Stoddard. The problem, Stoddard concluded, was fire suppression. Stoddard's published findings have since been identified as an important contribution to our understanding of the vital role fire plays in nature. In fact, Stoddard became a passionate spokesman for the use of controlled burning, not only for the promotion of game hunting, but for healthy forests [source: Johnson and Hale].

But Stoddard had many opponents, and it would be decades before controlled burning would receive mainstream recognition as the vital tool it has become.

Captain Russell Mitchell with Yosemite Fire monitors a controlled backfire along Highway 120 at the southwestern edge of Yosemite National Park. The 2013 fire was set to keep a wildfire from progressing toward the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station.
Captain Russell Mitchell with Yosemite Fire monitors a controlled backfire along Highway 120 at the southwestern edge of Yosemite National Park. The 2013 fire was set to keep a wildfire from progressing toward the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station.
Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Nowadays, foresters make extensive use of controlled burns, in part of promote healthier forests, but largely to prevent large wildfires. By lighting fires in the right places under the right weather conditions and with fire suppression tools on hand, experts can clear out the combustible understory material that leads to out-of-control wildfires.

But even if controlled burning has the above-mentioned benefits, surely it's bad for the environment. After all, burning releases particulate matter into the air, especially greenhouse gases like carbon. So controlled burning pollutes the air and contributes to climate change, right?

Yes and no. Recent computer modeling studies have shown that wisely deployed controlled burning actually captures more carbon in trees than it releases. That's thanks, in part, to the fact that old-growth trees trap far more carbon than younger, smaller growth. Burning the little stuff helps the bigger stuff last longer and therefore hold onto more greenhouse gas. And, as previously mentioned, controlled burning helps prevent wildfires, which are big, bad emitters of carbon [source: Gearin].

And there are other reasons for controlled burning, too. Back in the 1960s, experts in Yosemite National Park were puzzling over the fact that there were no baby sequoias growing in the shadow of the giant elders. While these titans can live for thousands of years, they're not immortal. They need to reproduce. But they weren't. One researcher, a Dr. Richard Hartesveldt, suspected that fire might have something to do with it. For decades, the park service had been diligently suppressing wildfires to help preserve the forest according to their mandate. Hartesveldt experimented with small-scale controlled burns and discovered that his hunch was correct.

Giant sequoias are highly fire resistant. They can easily survive low-intensity fires, and it turns out they desperately need those fires to reproduce. The heat opens up the sequoia cones and releases the seeds. By clearing out undergrowth, the fires uncover bare soil in which the seeds can germinate, and the new canopy gaps allow sunlight to reach the seedlings. The park service now lights carefully supervised and controlled burns. [source: National Park Service].

Fire doesn't just destroy, it helps regenerate.

Volunteer Jonathan Hallinan monitors a controlled burn at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Volunteer Jonathan Hallinan monitors a controlled burn at Appleton Farms in Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

So how do people actually carry out a controlled burn? Step one: They plan. They plan a lot. The "control" part of a controlled burn is key. After all, fire is a famously chaotic, destructive, often lethal force of nature. Let it get away from you, and hell could break loose. That said, with proper planning and execution, a controlled burn should go off well.

The first step of the first step is to consult the local government branch in charge of forestry. They know what regulations pertain, what permits are necessary and what time of year is best for burning in a given region. Spring is often the optimal time for controlled burning in many places since it tends to be the wettest season.

Next, whoever is conducting a burn must figure out exactly where it will take place and identify natural firebreaks (like roads or bodies of water). They will then plow, mow or bulldoze additional firebreaks where needed to contain the fire. A crew must be assembled — the bigger the better. People are needed to start fires, to control them and to put them out.

Those in charge of a controlled burn need appropriate equipment. Drip torches are the tool of choice for lighting things up. Various kinds of water sprayers, rakes, swatters, walkie-talkies and/or cell phones are also important to have on hand. Crew members must have lots of drinking water nearby and must abstain from wearing any synthetic materials, including rubber, which can melt and stick to skin when lit. Hard hats, eye protection and respirators are also recommended.

The organizer of a controlled burn must keep a sharp eye on the weather in the days leading up to a burn. Wind speed, humidity and temperature are all important factors when it comes to ensuring a safe burn. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, for instance, has recommended that burns should be avoided when the wind is blowing more than 12 miles per hour (20 kilometers per hour), the humidity is under 25 percent and the temperature is above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius).

Once everything is in order on a burn day, the crew often starts a small fire in a corner of the site that's downwind to see how the flames act in the given conditions. If all goes well, they can then light up something called a backfire. The backfire line is downwind against a firebreak. That means the only direction it can spread is against the wind, so it will move slowly and be easily controlled.

Next comes the flankfire. As the name suggests, the flankfires are the side lines. They burn in from their firebreaks at right angles to the wind, so they'll burn more quickly than the backfire. As the backfire and the flankfires burn, they consume the fuel in their paths, leaving an ever widening firebreak behind them.

Once this firebreak is large enough, the crew can ignite the headfire. The headfire burns with the prevailing wind direction, meaning it burns fast. It'll finish off the controlled burn, but thanks to big firebreaks created with the backfire and flankfires, it shouldn't get out of control.

Finally, when the burn is complete, it's time to "mop up," which means extinguishing any lingering flames or embers. That can mean cutting down any trees still on fire and generally drenching everything that's still burning or smoking with water.

Firefighter Elizabeth Ferolito keeps an eye on a controlled backfire in Irvine, California, set to protect homeowners as a wildfire rages.
Firefighter Elizabeth Ferolito keeps an eye on a controlled backfire in Irvine, California, set to protect homeowners as a wildfire rages.
Ann Johansson/Getty Images

Southern California is always in the news for devastating wildfires torching whole neighborhoods to the ground, so surely the state could benefit from controlled burning, right? That's what fire managers thought for a long time. In their efforts to control the annual blazes, they frequently set fire to the chaparral, a dense, thorny, shrubby tangle of vegetation that covers the canyon-sides.

All that burning did absolutely nothing to lessen wildfires or mitigate the damage they caused. Now researchers are beginning to understand why that is. Controlled burns help reduce the prevalence and impact of wildfires in certain kinds of forests where, if left to themselves, the woodlands will ignite every 10 to 15 years.

But chaparral isn't that kind of vegetation. When experts studied the geological record, they realized that, on its own, chaparral goes up in flames only once every 100 years or so. And when it does, it regenerates very slowly. So by regularly burning the chaparral, fire managers had inadvertently rid the landscape of natural, fire-resistant species and let invasive, more flammable vegetation take its place [source: Oskin]. In this particular case, in other words, controlled burning was counterproductive.

There is no general rule for how (and whether) controlled burning is beneficial. It all depends on the region. Local species and weather determine what works best and where. Take, for instance, the computer modeling about carbon capture mentioned earlier. Those simulations were conducted in a northern Arizona ponderosa pine forest. The results don't necessarily apply elsewhere.

In fact, a forestry expert in Oregon doubts that a northeastern forest that's managed with controlled burning would hold more carbon than one that wasn't. While it seems that controlled burning carried out in southeastern woodland helps the atmosphere, the same cannot necessarily be said of other forests.

Nevertheless, controlled burns help the environment in other ways. By maintaining open canopies, fire can improve a forest's structure and variety, making it more resilient to climate change [source: Gearin]. Paradoxically, it seems we might be able to use this great, destructive force to mitigate the damage we've done to the ecosystem.

Author's Note: How Controlled Burns Work

Lighting a fire in my woodstove every winter morning is the closest I come to a controlled burn. A few weeks ago, the controls failed when we had a chimney fire. It's nerve-wracking enough to watch a stovepipe turn red with heat, but when the top of the chimney is shooting out flames, it's time to call 911. Fortunately, the fire burned itself out and all was well. But 20 minutes of semi-uncontrolled burning were more than enough for me to relearn respect for the power of fire.

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More Great Links

Sources

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