Prescribing a Slow Burn

prescribed burn

As summer heats up, so do wildfires across the US. It’s Fire Season (June through September) and wildland fire potentials are at their peak. The best way to protect urban communities and natural lands from uncontrolled wildland fires is to fight fire with fire. In fact, North Carolina is leading the way with the most fires and the most acres burned of any state, with the bulk of fires resulting from prescribed burns on sites less than 10 acres.

The College of Natural Resources’ (CNR) comprehensive program in both fire ecology and hands-on fire management literally blazes a trail of success for future foresters. Forest Management majors in the college attend a 9-week intensive Summer Camp where they learn hands-on skills, including how to conduct prescribed burns. During Fire Week, taking place this week, students become certified level II firefighters (think Second Lieutenant in the armed forces), a certification that students will only find in North Carolina at NC State. The week covers four important aspects of certification: fire behavior and ecology, fire suppression and safety, human factors on the fire line, and fire incident command systems.

Dr. Joseph Roise, professor of forestry and operations research and the graduate program director, brings in specialists, who are mostly CNR alumni, from the State Forest Service, State Park Service and The Nature Conservancy to help teach the courses usually only taught to industry professionals. Students participating in Fire Week can go on to get jobs as prescribed burners, Burn Bosses or consultants since they have a much wider opportunity set with a fire certification. Other students find summer jobs fighting wildfires in the west, which are very lucrative opportunities after additional training, according to Dr. Roise.

This year, the College of Textiles is collaborating with students and faculty at Summer Camp to test fire shelters made by the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (T-PACC). Dr. Roger Barker, T-PACC Director, is working on a FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant to create lighter, safer fire shelters since all woodland fire fighters are required to carry one. Fire shelters are considered a fire fighter’s last defense and are only deployed when he or she is trapped by wildfires. The shelters, made of aluminum foil, silica and fiberglass, look like reflective sleeping bags and protect fire fighters from extreme heat when a fire passes over them. T-PACC will conduct an experimental protocol test for an advanced material fire shelter as a pre-test before conducting tests at fires around the country later in the summer or next year.

Burning Through Misconceptions

A prescribed burn is an important and cost-effective forest management tool that’s suffered a bad rap from misinformation. So, let’s set the record straight:

  • Prescribed burns are ecologically important. A prescribed burn sets back the successional species clock to maintain the current ecosystem of trees and wildlife. “Prescribed fire is used as a tool to restore natural ecosystems such as Longleaf Pine,” said Tom Gower, Forestry and Environmental Resources Department Head. “CNR faculty have done research measuring and modeling the effects of wildfire to restore and maintain Longleaf Pine ecosystems. Restoration ecology is really catching on and is really important in our sand hills regions of North and South Carolina.” Without burns, shade tolerant species shade out grasses and food for wildlife and non-native hardwood species out compete native trees, like Longleaf Pine, for habitat space. Fire adaptive native tree species have thick bark and will grow back after a burn, which allows sun to pass through the trees to the floor of the ecosystem so grasses and other species can survive. High intensity burns, like wildfires, set back the successional clock to zero, killing everything.
  • Prescribed burns are not nature killers. Fire helps maintain and restore habitats. Most wildlife has adapted to wildfire and even depends on fire to preserve their current habitats. For example, turtles and snakes bury themselves underground during a fire and other animals, like birds and deer, leave the area temporarily, returning almost immediately to eat the new grasses and food growing after the fire. Prescribed burns are not conducted during nesting season, which protects young birds.
  • Prescribed burns help prevent wildfires. With no fuel, naturally occurring wildfires die off and don’t become large, dangerous wildfires. Prescribed burns eliminate natural fire fuel like leaves, brush, debris, grasses, bushes and dead trees by using up the fuel in a controlled manner instead of leaving it to chance with a wildfire ignited through lightening or accidental human activity.
  • Prescribed burns are controllable. Fire is not uncontrollable. It’s dangerous, but very controllable. Fire was man’s first tool, and we’ve learned to control it in everything from combustion engines to electricity. With proper safety training, controlled burns are very safe for burners and the surrounding community.
  • Prescribed burns do not pollute the air. Prescribed burns are highly dependent on weather, which must be just right before a burn ever happens. Local prescribed burners consider smoke dissemination and dispersal to prevent smoke in populated areas like I-40, airports and REX hospital. Ideally smoke will only rise one mile and then blow away, which requires an unstable weather pattern to raise smoke straight up. (Fog is considered a stable pattern since it stays low and does not disperse). Burners use the National Weather Service Fire Weather forecasts to determine if weather will be ideal in a specific burn location. 
  • Prescribed burns are regulated. Prescribed burns require state and local permits. Certified Prescribed Burners submit a burn plan to identify the best conditions for the burn, including temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of vegetation, and conditions for smoke dispersal, as well as directions for starting, controlling and extinguishing the burn.
  • Prescribed burns have a history of success. Colonists began prescribed burns almost immediately after arriving in the 1600s. They burned land for public safety around settlements, to prevent pests like ticks, and to create space for agriculture. And before the English and Spanish colonists, Native Americans were burning land so grasses would grow for buffalo, elk and deer.

More information about prescribed burns: