Like Yogi, Smokey is smarter than the average bear. Visit smokeybear.com, and you’ll see that, “Prescribed fires help reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on our lands and surrounding communities by:
• Safely reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs and trees,
• Encouraging the new growth of native vegetation, and
• Maintaining the many plant and animal species whose habitats depend on periodic fire.”
Carefully executed prescribed burns –usually conducted in the spring – play an essential role in the conservation and management of our native prairie lands.
Rx for a safe prescribed fire
Staging a prescribed fire isn’t something you do on the spur of the moment. It’s not a case of Fred calling Tom and asking, “What are you up to this afternoon? It’s a nice, sunny day. I’ve got a torch and tractor with an old water tank. What say we burn that 20 acres of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land?” That just doesn’t cut it.
For each prescribed burn we conduct, Audubon Society of Omaha assembles a detailed plan, which ensures that we follow Nebraska law and act as a responsible steward of the land and a good neighbor. Here are a few of the elements that factor into our deliberations.
• Weather: Wind direction, humidity, temperature and forecast are all critical. Wind speed and direction help determine where we start the fire, how we control its path and how we mitigate the effects of smoke on nearby farms, housing developments or communities. If there is no wind, for example, it’s difficult to determine where the fire might spread. If the humidity is too low, the fire could burn too quickly. If it’s too hot, temperatures could take a toll on the fire crew.
• Geography: A detailed map, identifying the topography and other relevant features of the burn area, is vital to planning and a key part of the briefing conducted with members of the fire crew.
• Supplies: Before each burn, we identify everything we’ll need, including ATVs, radios, safety attire for the crew, adequate water supply, and more.
• Contingencies: This includes lists, processes and procedures involving nearby fire departments, police support, emergency medical care, and clear radio frequencies.
• Burn permit: No permit, no fire.
• Personnel and training: A burn boss heads the fire crew and works with members to assign roles based on their qualifications and experience. Fire crews must receive basic firefighting training through a National Wildfire Coordination Group. The crew boss will have advanced training and experience. A few crew members will work behind the scenes, not on the fire line. Before the burn, the boss will conduct an action meeting to ensure that every crew member fully understands his or her role. A follow-up meeting takes place after the burn to review what went well and what needs to improve before the next burn.
• Effective communication: Media coverage of Western wildfires can inadvertently create the false impression that all fires – even prescribed burns – jeopardize people and property. Understanding these misconceptions, ASO proactively worked with local officials to negotiate a burn easement when we learned a housing tract was being planned north of our prairie. By listening to community concerns and communicating a thoughtful response that included smoke mitigation, we avoided a conflagration and preserved the right to protect our prairie.
If you are interested in joining an ASO burn crew and doing this important work, just send us an email. And, remember: there are roles for everyone – you don’t have to be able to run up and down a hill with a 50-pound pack on your back.