Planning Your Controlled Burn

Prescribed Fire is sometimes exactly what nature ordered; learn how to do it the safe and legal way so you can take control of your land.

  • A planned burn should only be carried out by an experienced individual and with plenty of pre-planning.
    Photo by Getty/lippyjr
  • Double-check the forecast before lighting.
    Photo by Pixabay/stevepb
  • “The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States” guides landowners, cultivators, and preservers in understanding prairie ecology and how they can nurture it.
    Cover courtesy of the University of Iowa Press

The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States (University of Iowa Press), by Chris Helzer, is a guide to understanding the diversity of prairie ecology and how best to nurture the land. It’s intended for landowners, preservers, and farmers alike. Helzer oversees prairie restoration as the director for The Nature Conservancy at the Eastern Nebraska Project Office. The following piece discusses the implementation of controlled burns, or prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire is a difficult topic to address because in most places there are few easy options for getting your prairie burned. There are enough safety concerns with fire that if you don’t have considerable experience it’s not a good idea to try to burn your own site. Check with local conservation organizations to see if there are training courses offered in your area and volunteer yourself to help with other burns to gain experience. Other options can include experienced neighbors, contractors, local rural fire departments, or local conservation organizations. In all cases, the first step is to learn what your local laws concerning prescribed fire are. Talk to your local fire department, and find out what the protocol is for obtaining permission to burn. If you don’t feel comfortable with burning your prairie yourself, check with your fire chief and/

or other landowners in the area for other options. In some places, there are local contractors who can burn your prairie for you. Even local volunteer fire departments can sometimes help out, for a fee or just for experience.

There are three main steps to conducting a safe and effective burn on your prairie: planning, site preparation, and implementation.


The first step in planning a burn is to have a clear objective. Are you trying simply to remove the litter and standing dead grass? Are you trying to kill trees? If so, do you have large trees you want to save or do you want every- thing dead? Are you trying to suppress cool-season grasses or facilitate their growth? All of these questions should be answered before you start thinking about how and when the burn will be conducted.

Once you have an objective, there are at least five critical components to a fire plan. These are presented to give you an idea of the kind of planning that has to occur. Much more thought and information will be required to put together an actual plan.

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