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What is prescribed fire?

Posted by faithberry Employee Jun 26, 2019

Did you know that fire in natural areas at the right time and place fire can be good for certain ecosystems?  Many ecosystems across the United States are adapted to fire. Fires occurring at the right time, during the right conditions and at the right place can be restorative to some areas. Some plants need fire to regenerate and flourish, like California chestnut that thrives via fire-induced sprouting, and Jack Pine whose serotinous cones only open during a wildfire, and coffee berry in California whose seeds only sprout after a wildfire.

Many land management agencies are increasingly using prescribed fire not only to help create healthier ecosystems, but also to help create conditions around neighborhoods where a wildfire would burn with less severity and make managing wildfires in the future easier.

I had the opportunity to follow along with a Massachusetts (DCR) Department of Conservation and Recreation crew on a prescribed fire project in Freetown, Massachusetts.  The purpose of the fire was twofold, to control one tree species (white pine), and to help protect the abutting community by reducing the vegetative fuel load. 

The event was well planned and fire suppression resources were strategically staged throughout the burned “unit” (a small area of wildland).  They had also worked closely with a biologist before the burn to study how different species of birds, mammals, and insects might be impacted by a low-intensity fire.  They ensured weather conditions would be right on the day, so that it was not too hot, too windy, too dry and that there was no thermal inversion layer that would cause the local residents to be negatively impacted by smoke.

Once the fire was lighted with drip torches, the fire was carefully monitored and managed so that it stayed within the designated burn zone.  Afterward, I was able to see an area that had been previously burned and see all of the small green plants and other new growth that would provide food and shelter for a variety of species including small oak trees, huckleberry and blueberry bushes that provide food for many animals.

Prescribed fire should only be used as a forest management tool by local, state and federal agencies, tribes, and non-governmental land managing agencies that are well trained, experienced and knowledgeable about how to manage them to create healthier forests and more resilient landscapes. Creating more resilient landscapes is one part of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.  Zachary Prusak, board member with the Association for Fire Ecology shared, "The benefits of applying controlled burns (or prescribed fire) to the landscape are numerous, and include maintaining fire-dependent habitats that often include rare species found nowhere else, increasing the availability of nutrients in soil, and reducing the natural plant-based fuels in environments that surround where people live, so that when a fire occurs, the fire intensity is lower, and so easier to manage or control." 

The other two components of this strategy include; creating fire-adapted communities and improving wildfire response.  Learn more about how your efforts can contribute to creating healthier and more resilient communities in wildfire-prone regions today.

Photo credits: Faith Berry, NFPA

Ashland Oregon community Firewise meetingThe Firewise USA® program is thriving in the City of Ashland, Oregon. The city boasts one of the highest numbers of Firewise sites in the country. When I reached out to learn more about how Ashland continues to keep people participating in wildfire risk reduction, I found out that it has a lot to do with the residents themselves. Ashland is a place where neighbors talk to each other face-to-face and Firewise participants in the city have turned that talk into action.

The Firewise program got its start in Ashland in 2011, after a wildfire the previous year made the city think differently about their wildfire risk. The 2010 Oak Knoll fire destroyed 11 homes within just 45 minutes in an area of the city that wasn’t thought of as high-risk. From that point on, Ashland Fire & Rescue knew they had to get residents involved in reducing their wildfire risk. “Firewise was a grassroots way to get the focus on the residents themselves, a bottom-up approach instead of top-down, which has proven to be successful,” says Alison Lerch of Ashland Fire & Rescue. Within the first year of introducing the Firewise USA program, Ashland Fire & Rescue was able to get seven communities on board.

Since 2011, the interest in Firewise has grown year after year and now the city has 35 active communities. Ashland Fire & Rescue staff supports neighborhood Firewise champions through the challenges they may run into with landowner buy-in. One common challenge that communities across the country have is how to deal with the neighbor who isn't interested in participating. In Ashland, residents have dealt with this simply by not giving up on those residents who aren’t participating. They continue to do the work they can around their own homes and find friendly ways to offer education and support to those who haven’t yet taken action.


One tool that has driven a lot of on-the-ground action is Ashland Fire Rescue’s Individual Home Assessment program. The fire department offers this service to homeowners for free. Brian Hendrix from Ashland Fire & Rescue performs approximately one hundred home assessments a year. "Being one-on-one with a homeowner is the most effective tool we have because you are taking all the science and information that is out there and applying it directly to them. They tend to walk away with a better understanding of the actions they can take.” Word-of-mouth about this service has kept Hendrix busy and a visit to one home often sparks interest from neighbors.  “Once we go out to one property, neighbors tend to follow,” says Hendrix.

As the program progresses, Ashland Fire & Rescue is encouraging communities to start thinking about expanding their boundaries in order to educate even more people in the city and inspire action. Ashland’s 35 communities, with guidance from Ashland Fire & Rescue, are starting to create their own alliance, with the goal of meeting up to talk about what is working in their neighborhoods and learning from each other.  Lerch says she wants the communities in Ashland to know that they are not alone in their efforts and it is a sentiment that can be applied to every Firewise USA site. “We try to remind our communities that they are not just part of their local network, but they are a part of a network of more than 1,500 neighborhoods across the country all working to reduce their wildfire risk.”  

Photos provided by Brian Hendrix of Ashland Fire & Rescue.

Follow Marie Snow on twitter @MarieSnowNFPA 

stork with an orange bill standing in its habitat at the Franklin Zoo

In light of recent large wildfires occurring across the United States, have you ever wondered what would happen if places like large cities, stadiums, or Zoos were threatened by wildfire?  Just like homes and neighborhoods steps can be taken to reduce the risk of loss of these places in wildfire prone areas.

National Geographic recently shared an article, How Zoos Protect and Evacuate Animals During a Wildfire,  about steps a couple of Southern California zoos have taken to protect their current animal residents to help make them safer from wildfire.  Many of these sites abut up to areas that have been impacted by wildfires in the past. Some of the animal residents are listed as endangered or threatened species, so their death or injury would impact the global gene pool of these species, therefore steps taken to protect them are very important.  

According to the article the Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires its accredited members to have plans in place for events such as wildfires, earthquakes and floods.   Plan details implemented by a couple of the zoos shared in the article include;

  1.  Having pre-planned emergency drills where staff members practice crating animals and having supplies including food and medicines ready.   Some animals are moved well in advance of the fire because they are listed as endangered or threatened.
  2. Some animals (like birds) are pre-planned to be moved to safe areas like inside rooms to reduce damage smoke could cause and some bigger animals are put in areas where vegetation has been removed because they are so large and crating could cause greater injury to them like elephants and giraffes.
  3. Steps have been taken to reduce or modify vegetation in and around the facility to reduce the risk of loss to wildfire.
  4. Crates and containers with food are stored close to animal enclosures to help speed the evacuation process.
  5. Some dangerous animals are pre-planned to be moved to other zoos that can care for them properly early in the evacuation process.

The importance of pre-planning insures that animals at zoos and aquarium facilities will be kept safe in the event of a wildfire.  This is also an important concept for pet owners living in wildfire prone regions.  Preplanning to get your beloved animals out of harm’s way in the event of a wildfire will not only keep them safer but will also help you evacuate more quickly and safely.


Photo credit: Faith Berry

For the second blog in our series highlights Sites of Excellence participants, I reached out to Marilyn Cavell with Coal Bank Ridge in Virginia.  Below she shares the journey her community has taken on the wildfire risk reduction path and learn about wildfire risk in Virginia.

Located in the mountains of southwest Virginia just outside Blacksburg, Coal Bank Ridge (CBR) was developed in the early 2000’s with a vision of creating a protected wooded environment for quality, greater than 2,400 square foot homes. The subdivision is guided by a set of covenants and requires owners to be members of its homeowners association. Originally comprised of 57 wooded lots averaging about two to three acres each, the subdivision currently has 37 homes built or under construction (33 are currently occupied). The subdivision is flanked on the northwestern side by a steep, wooded 95 acre conservation easement owned by CBR and protected from development. 

We chose Coal Back Ridge to build our home because of the beauty of the wooded area and its location in close proximity to the town of Blacksburg. In addition, the community offered town water (even though most of the subdivision is outside the town limits) and natural gas, amenities not generally available in similar developments. We love looking out into the woods and observing the constant animal activity including birds, squirrels, deer, and the occasional turkey, fox, or bear. Our neighbors also cherish the peaceful beauty of our wooded community.  

Our Firewise Journey:

In 2007 we were contacted by a Virginia Department of Forestry representative (Brad Wright) who wanted to let us know about the National Firewise USA Recognition Program.   We invited Brad to make a presentation on the value of the Firewise USA at our annual homeowners meeting. With his encouragement and recognizing the value of learning about wildfire preparation and protection, CBR joined and has been a National Firewise USA Community since.   In 2018, CBR was chosen as one of seven communities in the nation as a Sites of Excellence Pilot Program participant. 

What are Our Goals in the Sites of Excellence Pilot Program:   

Our goals are 1) to create a Firewise pilot leadership team (composed of two   property owners and two foresters), 2) to get 100% pilot program participation within our neighborhood, 3) to increase awareness about fire behavior and risk, and 4) to prepare our homes for wildfire by achieving complete mitigation within 30 feet of each dwelling. Each property owner will assess their home and property (with the help of the Firewise team), identify and carry out measures to mitigate fire risk, and document progress over a two-year period. This will take commitment and effort, but the reward would be immeasurable in the event of a wildfire.

What are Some Challenges We Face:

Broadly speaking getting our property owners to engage in Firewise activities takes effort, as wildfire concerns are generally not a high priority. Because CBR is located in the eastern United States where relatively moist conditions exist, people here generally do not fear wildfire to the same degree as those who live in drier, open areas of the western United States. It is easy to think that wildfires simply are not going to happen here. Ironically, that way of thinking may put us at even greater risk. While wildfires do not occur often in our area, they do happen. Coal Bank Ridge is rurally located on a ridge of the Appalachian Mountains where abundant fuel and steep slopes and winds from the southwest present a fire risk to our homes. 

The Firewise USA program has been a valuable tool for raising awareness of fire danger and our property owners are appreciative of our participation. However, it will be challenging for our property owners to achieve the degree of sustained focus on fire prevention required by the Firewise Sites of Excellence Pilot Program. Most challenging will be to get 100% of our property owners interested and engaged. Participation of property owners of undeveloped lots will be difficult as many live outside the area and are not engaged with the community.   

A further challenge is that the very concept of our subdivision runs contrary to the 30 feet mitigation goal.  Promoted as a wooded subdivision, where trees are protected by covenants, many homes in CBR are built with the idea of having minimal impact on the natural environment. 

Overcoming Challenges:

The overall premise of the Firewise Sites of Excellence Pilot Program is that personal responsibility is the preferred approach for preventing fire from destroying homes. Likewise, we recognize that personal responsibility or buy-in on the part of property owners is the best path to full participation. We have established our Firewise pilot leadership team and scheduled a neighborhood meeting to explain the pilot program and promote its value to our property owners. We will discuss and distribute (at the meeting and online) a draft communication/outreach plan that also includes ideas for sharing our efforts with the broader community. Our team will welcome input from property owners. We will discuss and distribute (at the meeting and online) a draft process for implementing the pilot program and communicating with residents. Again, we will welcome input, ideas, and concerns. Also as part of the meeting we will present general fire prevention information and provide the same information online. 

Thank you Marilyn for sharing your story. We appreciate Coal Bank Ridge's commitment to personal responsibility and look forward to your progress over the next year and a half.  Stay tuned for our next blog featuring Arizona.

Photos courtesy of Marilyn Cavell

Is your community ready to take the next step in wildfire risk reduction?  Visit to learn more about how to organize your neighbors and get started.

Sign up for Fire Break Newsletter to stay up to date with the latest news and information on key wildfire issues. You can also follow me on twitter @meganfitz34 more wildfire related topics.

The action plan is one of the most important steps for your Firewise USA® site to complete. Once it is written, it is easy to file away and forget about, however, it can be one of the best tools your community has as a road map to success.

A well-thought out action plan can help your community stay organized and focused. Whether you are starting to write your first action plan or your just refreshing it, here are some tips you can consider:

  1. Use your risk assessment as your guide: When setting your priorities think about what you learned from the risk assessment and actions you can take to address your challenges.
  2. Think about what residents can do at their individual homes: The most important place to start when reducing your wildfire risk is at the home itself and its immediate surroundings. Select some goals that encourage residents to take action at their own homes and think about how you can motivate them to do so.
  3. Include the positive: You don’t have to limit your action plan to the tasks that your community needs to improve upon. Include events or goals that your community has had success with. This is a reminder of what is working for your community and the activities you want to maintain throughout the years.
  4. Set specific and measurable goals: Set benchmarks and ways to measure the progress in your community. Dates and deadlines may help you stay on track. Remember that you can always make changes to these goals based on what you learn is achievable for your community.
  5. Check in with your goals throughout the year: Consider your action plan as a living document. Set aside some time once or twice a year to review it and see where you are making progress. It may even helpful to write down comments on how you have addressed some of your goals or which goals have been more challenging. For those more challenging goals, your board/committee may want to set aside time to brainstorm or research new ways to approach the issue.

 We sometimes get wrapped up in reaching the risk reduction investment every year that we forget to really see what we have accomplished on our action plan. If you use your action plan to guide your activities, the investment will follow. It also allows for a record for future board members to carry on the work that you have started in your community.

In some states, you may be asked follow a specific template. Before starting your action plan, check in with your regional coordinator or state liaison to see if they have a template for you to follow.

Learn more about starting your Firewise USA site at our website, You can follow Marie Snow on twitter @MarieSnowNFPA

Picture of homes in the UK with grass and brush behind, wooden fence running parallel to homes

As great wildfire preparedness day events kicked off on Saturday, May 4, across the United States, they were joined by residents in the south of England who accepted this call to action in their community as well.  Preparedness Day events are now occurring in the UK, Canada, Italy, and Spain.  I caught up with Lin Kettley, manager of the Firewise UK effort in Dorset, England, to learn more about their day and its lessons for success.  

Lin shared that, “Our Firewise group in Beacon Road [Dorset] hMan pruning green vegetationad a very successful first ever Prep Day. I visited them during the day and they were working hard cutting back and clearing plants and debris in their gardens.”

Lin explained that the work day ended with, “A well-attended BBQ with everyone bringing along a contribution and they raised over £200 by holding a raffle for their start- up fund allowing them to purchase a large steel box to hold emergency equipment.”

One of the residents, Duncan Sowry-House, said of the event, “The first Corfe Mullen Firewise preparation day was extremely successful. Our group took advantage of the awareness that had been given and were motivated to come together as a community and work for the common good. Our families and homes are precious to all of us as well as our environment. Firewise is more than an initiative; it reduces risk and going forward will be a way of life.”  

The day also saw residents collect specific yard debris for a valuable purpose.  Their homes border managed open-lands of the “urban heaths” and share that vegetation.  Samples of numerous pants and shrubs were cut and bagged for research that Professor Claire Belcher of Exeter University is currently holding in the burn lab to measure the risks and flammability of the samples.  

The goal is to share a wider understanding of the fuel risks around homes with the residents and gain a stronger risk profile for the urban heath vegetation.  I think this effort shows the great partnerships that can arise out of Wildfire Preparedness Day and its ability to identify common-purpose between different wildfire stakeholders.  

Wildfire Preparedness Day events are also occurring in Canada, Italy, and Spain.  We’ll share stories from these over the summer and applaud all the work of residents who are making a difference in their communities. 

Photos courtesy of Andy Elliott, click on photos to visit original post on Twitter.

Sign up for Fire Break Newsletter to stay up to date with the latest news and information on key wildfire issues

Map of the US showing above and below normal significant wildland fire potentialThe National Interagency Fire Center Predictive Services has released its June outlook, and here's what you need to know.  During May, much of the US experienced wetter and cooler temperatures, below traditional averages.  While we did see some large fires in Alaska, Arizona, and Florida, the number of acres burned was about 1/5 of the average (15,148) and the number of fires was around half (280,661).  Moving in to June and the summer months, we can see some areas will pick up in activity as drying and curing of grasses occurs.  There is potential for areas such as the Pacific Northwest, California, parts of Arizona, and the Southeast to experience above normal significant wildfire potential


What does this mean for you?  While the general outlook doesn't seem as dire as in some recent years, wildfire preparedness is still important.  With the abundance of vegetation from the wet spring, taking time to perform annual maintenance around your home and property is critical.

Here are some simple actions in the Home Ignition Zone that can make a big difference:

Home and 0-5 feet from the foundation:

  • Clean roofs and gutters of dead leaves, debris and pine needles that could catch embers
  • Clear any flammable material away from the base of the home such as mulch, leaves and needles, flammable plants

Girl pushing a mower, mowing down grass5-30 feet from the home

  • Keeps lawns and native grasses mowed to a height of four inches
  • Remove ladder fuels (vegetation under trees) so a surface fire cannot reach the crowns

Check out our website for more tips and actions you can take around you home to prepare for wildfires.

Sign up for Fire Break Newsletter to stay up to date with the latest news and information on key wildfire issues. You can also follow me on twitter @meganfitz34 more wildfire related topics.


Picture of a family working on a wildfire safety project submitted by Steve Lawry of Holly Knoll Homeowner's Association in Great Falls, Virginia.Working with many neighborhoods and cities through the years, there were times when I wondered why some areas seemed so well prepared for wildfire and some were not. Most unprepared people are aware of their risk and some even know actions they need to take to reduce their risk of loss but did not really do much collaboratively as groups or individually to take steps necessary to help make themselves safer if there was a wildfire event. Although we can acknowledge that it is ultimately our responsibility to help make things safer for ourselves and our loved ones, sometimes this notion does not address the fact that there are vulnerable populations who may need extra support or people who have difficulty engaging in wildfire safety work because of a barrier of some sort.

An interesting case study recently written by Dr. Crystal A. Kolden and Carol Henson takes a look at a success story about wildfire safety efforts made by the Montecito, California fire department and local residents before the Thomas Fire and how they overcame barriers to wildfire mitigation efforts. Through the use of geospatial data, recorded interviews and other program documentation, it explored the plan the community made and the actions they took to reduce their losses during the 2017 Thomas Fire.

Some of the steps they took have been emulated by other communities I have connected with in the past, including:

  1. The local fire department conducted outreach and educational events focusing on getting to know each neighborhood's needs and helping each find specific solutions to meet those needs. They realized from these conversations that members of their community had a financial barrier. To overcome this hurdle to action, they created a community-wide chipping program as a solution to help residents, especially those with financial needs, get rid of debris removed from on and around the home.
  2. The fire department also took time to get to know where people who had physical or language barriers would need extra help during an evacuation.  In wildfire events, these populations can suffer the greatest loss. Simple actions taken in advance of a wildfire event can make a difference.
  3. The community and fire department worked together to build a bond of trust, which enabled them to work together on wildfire safety project work. A similar positive relationship enabled Falls Creek, Colorado to have a positive outcome during the 416 Fire.
  4. They provided materials in the different languages spoken by residents in the community to overcome language barriers to adopting wildfire preparedness. NFPA® has no-cost Spanish language brochures to help your community overcome this barrier.

The case study also revealed that they should have better planned for and taken steps to mitigate the effects of flooding after the fire, which is where the community experienced the greatest losses. However, the paper further discussed that their efforts to make the city safer helped reduce the losses by the community overall. I have seen first-hand where communities who have worked hard together have created safer communities where residents have developed a bond of trust.

Picture of a family working on a wildfire safety project submitted by Steve Lawry of Holly Knoll Homeowner's Association in Great Falls, Virginia.

ASIP class attendees assessing a structure for wildfire riskRegister now for NFPA's Assessing Structure Ignition Potential from Wildfire two-day training in San Antonio, part of NFPA's annual Conference & Expo featured education. The class will take place on June 18-19 concurrent with the conference at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. This class will provide valuable skills and knowledge to help you in your wildfire safety mission.

Learn the science behind how homes ignite from wildfire. More importantly, find out the best ways to advise property owners about actions that will help prevent ignition and reduce the chances of home destruction during a brush or forest fire. 

Wildfires happen in the central, south and eastern United States, and Texas is no stranger to deadly, destructive fires. The Bastrop County Complex Fire in 2011, just outside Austin, took the lives of four residents, destroyed 1,673 homes and inflicted an estimated $325 million of insured property damage. It also severely damaged Bastrop State Park and the ancient Lost Pines Forest.

Discover what others have learned. According to one captain/paramedic, “I thought I wanted to learn about structure triage. What I got was a new mindset concerning how to approach wildland fire (operational) and people (social).” Another fire captain commented, “I am better prepared to assess WUI properties and communicate hazards to community members.”

Don't delay - register today and join your colleagues and expert instructor in San Antonio! 


Image credit: Nick Pivaroff. Students in Orange County, California, examine a home for wildfire risks.

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