For those who live in the country, a common springtime event is watching the fire department racing to suppress a controlled burn that “got away”. In most cases the landowner was innocently burning trash, leaves, weeds or an irrigation ditch when they lost control of their burn and started a wildfire. Controlled burning is a traditional tool used by many landowners in Wyoming to reduce hazard or unwanted fuels. Fire can be a good tool to achieve these objectives. However, if not planned properly it can create a dangerous situation putting life and property at risk.
There are a few basic principles a landowner can take to maintain control of their burn, protect valuable property and meet their burn objectives. Let’s take a look at four basics steps to consider before using fire as a tool.
Assess fuels to be burned and any associated risks. It is essential that a landowner do an assessment of both the target fuels and the fuels adjacent to the target fuels. If fuels can carry fire into homes, outbuildings, hay stacks, crops, fences, utility poles, irrigation pipe, and wind breaks then steps are necessary to protect those items prior to ignition.
It is also necessary to assess the fuel situation next door (off your property) in case the fire should escape to that property. A red flag should go up if there is any possibility of the burn or embers from the burn getting into the neighbors fuel and eventually their valuables. The landowner doing the burn needs to take ownership in their neighbor’s property because an escape fire can quickly destroy or damage that property before the fire department arrives.
The person doing a burn should check their homeowners insurance to see if it covers any damages resulting from their burn activities. Remember, by law, landowners are responsible for a trespass wildfire and any associated damage as a result of that fire.
Do a burn plan: Planning a burn is essential if the person burning wants to maintain control of their fire. A spur of the moment burn will create nothing but trouble because the person has not taken the time to assess the fuels, establish adequate control measures (fire breaks), predict fire weather conditions that will drive your fire or prepare adequate suppression resources that will help suppress and control the fire. Here are some basics steps to consider in a burn plan.
- Plan for a worst case situation: Do not focus attention on just the target fuels. Look at all fuels that adjoin target fuels both on and off the property. Consider taking proper steps outlined below to prevent flames or embers from getting into these fuels. The first priority should be to contain the fire to target fuels.
- Evaluate fuels to be burned: Burning dry, fine, standing fuels such as grass and brush can create an intense fire that can get out of hand quickly. On the other hand, burning piles of leaves or trash or mowed or grazed areas can be less threatening if precautions are taken. Proper weather conditions and suppression tools are need to maintain control of the burn.
- Build adequate firebreaks: Consider breaking up fuel continuity by creating fire breaks that will either stop the fire or reduce the flames to a manageable state. Fire breaks such as roads, cultivated areas or grazed areas can be a second line of defense, but the first line of defense should focus on the target fuels.
- Keep it small and manageable: Plan on treating target fuels in small manageable burns rather than one large fire, which can get out of hand. This can be done by breaking up the target fuels by mowing, raking away fuels (building a fire line) or using a wet line to manage your burn. A wet line (applying water to adjacent fuels with a sprayer or hose in advance of ignition) can be used to slow or stop a fire. However, be careful when using a wet line as the water application can evaporate quickly and the fuel can become burnable within a few minutes after wetting.
- Protect valuables: Consider adequate fire breaks and take extra precautions around fuels that contain valuables. Irrigation pipe, fence posts, utility poles, hay stacks, farm implements, wind breaks and other valuables can burn if fire is introduced to them. Removing fuels around these items may be necessary or in the case of fence posts or utility poles, applying a good soaking of water in advance of the burn will help prevent them from igniting. Utility poles are covered with highly flammable treatment, so extra precautions are necessary.
- Consider ladder fuels: Ladder fuels move the fire vertically from the ground into higher fuels and can produce crown fires or building fires. Always consider the possibilities of a fire getting into ladder fuels which can take a fire to a totally new dimension. Remove fuels under trees and/or limb up the trees so fire cannot get into the crowns. Remove all fuels away from buildings, and stay away from shake roofs and wind breaks. Embers from a burn can start a fire on a roof or in a hay barn hundreds of feet from the flames.
- Gather suppression resources: Adequate firefighting resources such as a rake and shovel, water with sufficient hose, hand or ATV mounted sprayer, and people need to be available and ready to respond to an escape fire. Proper clothing for personal protection is also necessary to help protect people from burns. Boots, gloves, protective glasses and a hat are recommended. Stay away from sneakers, nylon or other flammable clothes.
- Implement Firewise Landscaping: Landowners should consider Firewise landscaping their properties to reduce a wildfire threat year around from both near and afar. A home and associated valuables must be able to defend itself from a wildfire if Fire Department resources have a long response time. For Firewise landscaping ideas, go to the Park County Firewise website.
- Observe local weather: Daily weather observations should be taken at the burn site for at least two days prior to your burn. Weather forecasts are general in nature so it is imperative that the landowner observe local weather patterns and conditions to better anticipate changes that will certainly occur at the burn site. As a rule of thumb, a major change in local fuel and weather conditions will start around 9 or 10 AM. Warming temperatures and the direct rays of the sun begin drying out fuels from overnight dew making them very flammable and unpredictable. Those same warming conditions also create a change in wind direction and wind speed as the air becomes unstable. An increase in wind speed and a quick change in wind direction are probably the biggest reasons controlled burns become wildfires.
- Select the appropriate burn period: Avoid burning after 11:00 AM. Unstable air combined with dry fuels develops at this time of day creating extreme fire conditions and fire behavior. On the other hand, acceptable fire conditions will usually return after sunset when lower temperatures and higher relative humidity occurs. A rule of thumb is to plan a burn before 9 AM or after sunset to take advantage of favorable weather conditions.
- Green up helps reduce fire intensity: Allow some green up to occur in target fuels. Green fuels intermixed with dry fuels reduces the rate of spread and intensity of a fire, making it easier to control. Burning when all the fuels are dead and dormant increases the risk of a wildfire. A rule of thumb is any flame over one (1) foot high and moving over 3 MPH (a fast walk) cannot be directly attacked with hand tools, a garden hose or a sprayer.
- Consider other alternatives: After the burn assessment and a burn plan is completed and the landowner feels burning is too risky, then they should consider using other tools or methods to meet their objectives. Mowing, weed eating, cultivation, chemicals or livestock grazing can also be used to remove unwanted or hazard fuels.