Mason County News
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Smoke is in the Air
Wednesday, February 16, 2011 • Posted February 16, 2011

Recently, our vista landscapes have been of even more interest than usual, especially when plumes of white smoke have billowed upward and filled the horizon. In some instances, accidental grassfires have occurred, but there also have been several prescription burns conducted in the area.

There are basically three types of fires which can occur in the native landscape: a prescribed or prescription burn, an accidental fire caused by embers from burning trash or a lit cigarette tossed from a car, and a wildfire.

So, what exactly is a prescribed burn? Much like a prescription from a physician, a prescription burn is a fire that is purposely set to accomplish specific objectives; and, it must be conducted under an exact set of parameters which are necessary to minimize the risks associated with conducting a prescribed burn. At a minimum, for a prescribed burn to take place, the relative humidity must be at least 20 percent, the wind speeds cannot exceed 20 mph, and the ambient air temperature must be less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

For many years, mankind has prevented fire because of fear of the wildfire. With this land management practice, there have been consequences and trade-offs. If grasslands are left alone and allowed to "return to their natural state," plant litter accumulates and woody plant species such as beebrush and juniper aggressively take over our grasslands and out-compete native grasses and forbs. When left "to nature," the native grassland can become a more volatile situation, especially when fires ignite from lightning strikes during seasonal thunderstorms, or from that cigarette which was tossed from the car. Accidental fires and wildfires are more volatile by nature simply because they are not planned; they are unpredictable and can result in loss of property and life. Prescription burns are a means to reduce the volatility by reducing the fuel load on the rangeland, and they all begin with a detailed plan and objectives.

"Prescription" rangeland and grassland fires have been relied upon for hundreds of years to manage the native landscape. Native Americans used fire to replenish grazing lands for the traveling herds of buffalo and other game animals. Today, landowners rely on planned prescription burns to remove encroaching woody plants, remove old growth of grasses and reduce high fuel loads, and to improve nutrient cycling back to the soil. Fire is not the only tool! Fire is but one tool in the landowner’s toolbox for managing the land. And, the results following a prescribed burn can be amazing: improved access to pastures; increased and improved forage and browse for livestock and wildlife; suppression of less desirable plants such as cacti and brush; removal of plant litter and mulch at the soil surface which improves seed germination and, an overall improvement and increase in plant diversity which will benefit and improve the quality of livestock and wildlife.

Smoke is in the air! As you are very familiar with our seasonal weather patterns, late winter presents itself as an optimum time to conduct a prescription burn on our grasslands. As with most things, timing is everything and timing is very important to a successful prescribed burn. Recently, winds have been low, humidity levels have been higher than normal and temperatures have definitely been below that 80 degree threshold. When prescription burns are planned, the planning process actually begins many months and possibly years in advance. Early in the planning stages, firebreaks are created along the edges of the area to be burned by plowing, disking or burning. Firebreaks help to remove plant matter before a prescribed burn, and help to control the direction of the fire. Backfires are fires that are set and burn into the prevailing wind – they are slow-moving and low to the ground and help reduce the fire intensity. Firebreaks and backfires disrupt the progressive and uncontrolled movement of the fire, and these methods are important components of a prescription burn.

Another important safety component in conducting a prescribed burn is monitoring of the local weather conditions. In addition to temperature, relative humidity and wind speeds, we also monitor air movement patterns to safely manage smoke. We try diligently not to smoke out the town! The mixing height of the air is basically how the air masses are situated in a columnar fashion above the ground and how stable they are. Our goal during a prescribed burn is to ensure that the smoke goes up first and then moves directionally from the fire.

Many agencies, local entities and local volunteers such as members of the burn association and volunteer fire departments work collaboratively with the landowner to plan the prescribed burn, to allocate resources, and to safely conduct the burn. We work together to accomplish the common goal with the landowner, and no safety aspect is overlooked. Although everything is considered and every precaution is taken to minimize the risks, sometimes, winds shift in the late afternoon or ceilings drop and smoke becomes a nuisance. Every effort is made to mitigate these problems in an effort to conduct a safe prescribed burn.

In Mason and surrounding areas, resources are available to assist landowners in developing a prescribed burn plan. The Mason County NRCS Field Office and the Mason County Burn Association can assist landowners in preparing a prescribed burn plan. Should you require more information about the benefits of prescribed fire, call the NRCS Field Office in Mason.

Melissa Sturdivant is the Soil Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Mason and can be reached by email at or at 325-347-5749.

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