Prescribed burns take a lot of planning but result in increased safety, refreshed land

Prescribed burns take a lot of planning but result in increased safety, refreshed land

15 February 2006

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USA — The first prairie fires were started by lightning or were lit by Native Americans who understood the natural benefits of fire. But today, burning the prairie must be done with careful planning and under strict supervision. That’s where the Loess Hills Mobile Prescribed Fire Crew comes in.

Fire crews are well trained to conduct prescribed fires close to residences and other structures. In addition to controlling the blaze, smoke management is also a crucial element to a successful burn.

The Nature Conservancy oversees the Fire Crew, which was started two years ago. It is the crew’s job to conduct safe, controlled fires on private and public lands throughout the Loess Hills. In its first season in 2004, the crew oversaw just a handful of fires, primarily on land owned by the Conservancy. But through education and word-of-mouth, interest in their services has soared, and 15 burns are already scheduled for this spring.

The Fire Crew is headed by Burn Boss Matt Graeve. Based in Council Bluffs, Graeve works with landowners to weigh the benefits and risks of using fire on their land, and is responsible for all the details leading up to and including the day of the burn.

“It can take up to six months to put together a burn plan,” Graeve said.

Landowners who are interested in a burn on their land can begin by giving Graeve a call. The first step is to tour the proposed burn site. Graeve walks the area with the landowner, assessing such details as topography, property lines, vegetation, nearby residences, roads and waterways, and the landowners’ overall objectives. He stresses the importance of cooperating with neighboring landowners whenever a burn is planned.

“Property lines don’t follow the topography,” Graeve said. We need the cooperation of neighbors and absentee landowners to make the burn safer for the burn crew and the public.”

Graeve also notifies nearby law enforcement and fire departments so they are aware of the time and location of a burn. He works closely with representatives from the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, who can explain the various cost-share programs that are available to landowners to help them cover the cost of a controlled fire.

Armed with all of this information, Graeve begins work on the burn plan, or “prescription” for the controlled fire, hence the term “prescribed fire.” All of his detailed prescriptions contain several items, including specific site information and preparation, ecological goals and objectives, required personnel and equipment, weather information, a contingency plan, follow-up procedures for the day following the burn, and post-burn evaluation. Humidity, wind direction and speed are crucial elements to consider, as is smoke management, particularly around developed areas and interstate highways.

Despite all of this planning, Graeve won’t hesitate to postpone the prescribed fire if wind and humidity conditions are not ideal on the day of the burn.

During the busiest months for burning – April, May, October and November – Graeve employs four fulltime fire fighters to work on the crew. They may come from as far away as North Carolina or Washington, and are highly trained in wild land fire techniques. Graeve also employs at least 25 on-call firefighters scattered throughout the Loess Hills year-round. The on-call employees include volunteer fire fighters, conservationists and natural resources workers. Depending on the size and location of a burn, Graeve calls upon these people to assist as needed on the day of a prescribed fire.

Graeve, 29, is one of the most highly-trained wildland fire experts working in Iowa today. He first worked with prescribed fire as a biology graduate student at Kansas State University. The University maintains an 8,000-acre prairie research station, part of which is burned every year.

“While I was there, I volunteered on all the fires they did, at least 25 in one year,” Graeve said.

For the next three years, he worked on burn crews for The Nature Conservancy in Iowa, the Carolinas and North Dakota. He has participated on prescribed fires in nine different states and fought wildfires in seven states, ranging from Florida to Montana. Graeve was hired in January 2004 to get the Loess Hills Fire Crew started.

The groundwork for the crew had been laid prior to Graeve’s arrival. Susanne Hickey, Loess Hills Project Director for The Nature Conservancy, had been working with landowners and partners to mechanically remove unwanted trees and vegetation. In addition, the Loess Hills Alliance had been hosting fire ecology workshops that provided education about prescribed fire and allowed landowners to participate in an actual burn.

“The mobile fire crew idea was developed during our participation in the U.S. Fire Learning Network in 2002-03,” Hickey explained. “The barriers we identified to getting more fire on the ground included limited local capacity and concern by landowners over liability. The crew has helped increase local capacity providing experience for local fire practitioners and providing landowners an alternative to doing their own burns. While we had a rough season last fall because of dry weather, the crew has pulled off some difficult burns and has done a great job engaging local volunteer fire departments.”

Hickey was instrumental in securing grant funds with the Golden Hills Resource Conservation and Development to establish the Burn Crew. Funding has come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Loess Hills Alliance. The original funds were for two years, but recently the Iowa Department of Natural Resources committed funding from their Landowner Incentives Program to extend the project through 2008.

“No one entity could do it alone,” Hickey said. “It takes many groups working together to allow us to provide the services of the Burn Crew.”

Graeve has been busy all winter studying potential burn sites and preparing prescriptions for this spring’s fires. Because of the many months needed for planning, he’s also begun work on prescriptions for fall burns. Having grown up in the Loess Hills region, he appreciates their uniqueness and advocates for using prescribed fire as one of several tools to restore them to their original beauty.

“It’s really a rewarding job working with the landowners,” Graeve said. “Every landowner has such a passion for the land they own. In a lot of ways it’s similar to my own passion for preserving the ecology of the land.”


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