Learning the safety nuts and bolts of a prescribed burn plan helps landowners, neighbors, and the public appreciate the safe rebirth of native grasslands.
Sean Kelly, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension Range Management Field Specialist, Winner, South Dakota, discusses the process of a prescribed burn to showcase the safe use of fire to rid pastures of grass-choking and water-stealing red cedar trees.
“The Eastern Red Cedar invasion is happening right in my backyard. It affects many of my friends, landowners, ranchers, and people I work with in the county. So, I’m grateful for the support of SDSU, NRCS and the efforts by the Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association (MMRPBA) for getting prescribed fire re-introduced into rangeland management in South Dakota. Everyone realizes how extremely critical this is to halt this Cedar invasion going up the Missouri River.”
These sentiments sum up the heart of Sean Kelly, who is not only SDSU’s Extension Range Management Field Specialist, but he’s also a ranch landowner, local volunteer firefighter and board member of MMRPBA, with the role of being SDSU Extenson’s liaison.
Kelly built on his passion for rangeland through a bachelor’s degree in range science at SDSU, followed by a master’s degree in ranch management from the King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management at Texas A&M.
In this podcast, Kelly talks about his supportive role with The Mid-Missouri River Prescribed Burn Association covering four counties (Gregory, Charles Mix, Brule and Lyman). He works with landowners to plan and conduct burns and education and outreach to help lessen people’s fear of using fire as a valuable tool.
Ranchers are losing more pastures and their ranch resiliency to a forest-like takeover of the invasive eastern red cedar. “When this dense monoculture happens, no vegetation grows underneath these trees, damaging soil health,” Kelly says.
Safety of a prescribed burn
The process of a prescribed burn begins when a landowner contacts the MMRPBA for an initial meeting more than one year before a burn is scheduled. “We learn the basics so we can begin to fill out an 11-page detailed burn plan: their objective, initial location of a potential burn, and best way to conduct a burn,” Kelly says.
If a pasture is a good burn candidate, it takes several visits to complete a detailed inventory and map the pasture using GPS. That includes judging adequate fuel load (existing grasses/forbs/trees) for a successful burn, soil moisture conditions, topography, water sources, pasture management history, firebreak locations and types, buildings, utilities, calculating escape routes, smoke management, crew and equipment needs, landowner liability insurance and anything else needed to execute a safe and successful burn.
“About six months ahead of a potential burn, we make sure there’s enough residual grass to carry fire across the pasture, along with cutting trees to heap under larger trees as needed, creating a ladder fuel to burn hotter. To create the fuel, many landowners quit grazing the area for a year or more to grow 3,000 to 4,000 pounds biomass per acre or one to two-foot-tall vegetation,” Kelly says.
Another essential component is firebreaks (river/creek/heavily grazed or mowed area) surrounding the prescribed fire location to stop the burn, given specific wind directions. A black line, or burned area inside the firebreak, helps ensure the fire stays inside the prescribed burn area.
People and communications
The landowner, usually the burn boss on burn day, discusses plans with neighbors early on and before burn day. The burn plan details the burn crew and all personnel to be contacted before the burn—from EMT, fire, police and highway patrol to hospital emergency, 911 operator, utility companies and more.
Before burn day, the weather is monitored frequently and communicated to all parties. “To determine the right conditions during our burn season from February through May, we go by the general 80-20-20 rule: 80-degree air temperature and 20 miles per hour wind maximum, and 20% minimum humidity,” Kelly says. “No wind makes fire movement unpredictable, so 10 to 15 mph is best, also making sure there are no major wind events forecasted in the days immediately following the burn.”
On burn day, a crew meeting occurs to review the map and ignition sequence, specific duties, weather report, equipment check, escape routes and safety procedures. “Everyone has a map and remains in constant radio communications to hear burn progress and weather reports throughout the day,” Kelly says.
Once complete, the landowner is responsible for the mop-up portion of the burn. They monitor for any possible flare-up over the following 2-3 days.
Post-fire benefits land and wildlife
“After we do a prescribed burn, the canopy opens up to allow native grasses to come back with a nice diverse mix of cool and warm-season grasses and forbs,” Kelly says. The rangeland becomes more resilient, there’s less erosion as the soil becomes healthier, and the wildlife and birds thrive.
Besides helping ranchers, livestock, birds and wildlife, prescribed burns also help people and property by reducing wildfire risks. “Such a wildfire happened in 2012, just south into Nebraska along the Niobrara River, burning more than 50,000 acres including areas that were full of red cedar trees.”