Prescribed Fire: A Management Tool

By Bill Altman and Paul Hagey | January 31, 2011
From Missouri Conservationist: Feb 2011

The Conservation Department fights wildfires and conducts prescribed fires. So do the Forest Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Missouri State Parks. These agencies together might burn more than 100,000 acres each year using prescribed fire if the weather and conditions are suitable.

There is an important distinction between wildfire and prescribed fire: Prescribed fire is carefully planned and controlled. A “burn plan” is essential in using fire as a management tool.

A burn plan includes a statement of the burn’s objectives—what results are intended by burning. The plan also sets requirements for weather conditions before and during the burn, and includes considerations for smoke dispersal and contingency plans in case the fire escapes the designated area. Trained personnel and equipment must be available to conduct the burn safely and then evaluate the area to see that the fire met its objectives.

The intensity of prescribed burns is noticeably less than wildfires, but the response to prescribed fire by vegetation and animal life is often dramatic. Many plant and animal species that were long absent repopulate the area within and near the burn area.

For more than 30 years, the Conservation Department has used fire as a vegetation management tool. In the early years of prescribed fire, the areas burned were generally small, and there was no consensus among resource managers on the net benefit of managed fire. Indiscriminate burning on private land was more prevalent, and a concern, as it was being overused in many areas and often got out of control—leading to wildfires.

Through decades of fire prevention education by Smokey Bear and the Department, and the help of many citizen partners, we have been able to greatly diminish destruction due to wildfires. In the meantime, the value of planned, prescribed fires has been acknowledged by all resource managers. Also, an understanding of the role of naturally occurring fire in the environment and the important function it has in sustaining ecosystem health has grown. This has led, in some cases where the conditions are appropriate, to large landscape-sized prescribed fires.

Benefits of Landscape-Sized Burns

In 1994, Peck Ranch Conservation Area was one of the first sites for landscape-sized (approximately 1,000 acres or more) prescribed burns on the state’s diverse Ozark terrain of forest, hills, valleys and glades. A prescribed fire of this size mimics the area’s historic fire pattern and reestablishes the habitats those fires created and maintained.

Fire behavior, on a landscape scale, varies across the land with the amount and type of fuel loads like leaf litter, grass, and woody logging debris, and terrain properties like slope and aspect. Some sections burn more intensely, some less, and some not at all. The result is a mosaic of burned landscape that ensures a variety of habitats. “The more diversity I have in a burn, the more habitat diversity I have within a landscape,” says Ryan Houf, Peck Ranch’s area manager and current burn boss.

At Peck Ranch, landscape burns helped wild turkey populations and other wildlife by thinning forest understory and maintaining the region’s characteristic interspersed glades and woodlands. These burns have also been instrumental in the successful restoration of the eastern collared lizard to the area, an indication of just how powerful prescribed burns can be as a tool in habitat restoration.

Collared lizards evolved as, and still are primarily, a Southwest species. However, about 8,000 years ago, during the warm temperature peak in the interval since the last North American glacier advance, known as the Xerothermic maximum, southwestern species including collared lizards, tarantulas and prickly pear cacti moved east into the Ozarks. As the area cooled off, these species remained in the warm pockets of the Ozarks: south and southwest facing glades, typified by rocky outcrops and thin soil on sunny slopes. Because of their unique, distinct ecology, these glades have become islands of diversity within the matrix of Ozark woodlands, but remain integrally tied to periodic fire for their existence.

With a lack of fire, glades begin to degrade in about 30 years; the first stage usually involves their encroachment by sun-loving, thin soil and drought tolerant vegetation like the notorious eastern red cedar. Landscape burns at Peck Ranch have helped maintain open glades among grassy, open woodlands, and increased ground vegetation and insects, which has helped provide good nesting and foraging habitat for a variety of wildlife. For example, fire-stimulated grasses and forbs at once provide foraging cover for turkey and quail poults and also an abundance of ground-level insects, which are critical components of a poult’s diet in the first few weeks of its life.

Natural Resource and Property Protection

The Conservation Department, along with the U.S. Forest Service and many rural fire departments, has nearly accomplished the job Frederick Dunlap, our first state forester, once declared impossible: curtailing the destruction of fires past. Each year wildfires still burn about 44,000 acres in the state, however that is down from the early years of fire control in the state when wildfires burned about 68,000 acres annually.

As in all parts of the U.S., wildfires in Missouri sometimes destroy dwellings, outbuildings and equipment. As a result, educational programs have been developed to couch homeowners on how to protect their property. One of these is an interagency effort called Firewise. Protection of property is possible with a little initial work, which primarily involves the trimming and removal of both live and dead vegetation near the home and other buildings. This cleanup work is performed in the home ignition zone, an area of about 30–50 feet around a structure. Then, with some periodic maintenance to sustain this cleared space, property improvements are protected from almost all instances of wildfire in Missouri. For more information on protecting your home from wildfire, visit the Firewise website at or talk with your local Department forestry office.

In addition to the loss of developed property and equipment from wildfire, we can lose the value of commercial-grade timber through scarring and subsequent disease of trees. We can also lose soil cover and items such as fence posts and hay bales. We spend large amounts of tax money training and equipping our firefighters to get in harm’s way and suppress these fires.

Missouri’s wildfire problem is unlike that in the western U.S., where wildfire is usually a result of dry lightning storms. Wildfires in Missouri are nearly all human caused and, therefore, preventable. Most are caused by burning debris, household trash and yard waste and farm clean-up fires. A few are due to carelessness with equipment or campfires, and some are from ill-planned burns by landowners. We still experience a significant number of wildfires that are the result of arson. In some parts of the state, arson accounts for more than half of the acres burned. Arson sets and escaped fires generally have one thing in common: they occur when the weather is dry, fuel is dry and winds are high. The result is wildfires with a maximum destructive potential. This potential is what many people have come to expect from any and all fires they see.

As we have learned more about the natural processes of the resources we manage, we have found that not all fires are bad. Research and experience have shown that fire can be used to manage native grasslands such as prairies, glades, savannas and woodlands, or planted cool- and warm season grasses. Fire can control woody plants and herbaceous weeds, restore natural communities, stimulate desirable plants, change grazing pressure, reduce wildfire hazards, improve wildlife habitat and increase livestock gains. To realize these benefits, fire must be used under specified conditions and with proper timing.

If You Use Prescribed Fire, Do It Right

Private landowners have been using fire for decades. Ranchers in north and southwest Missouri have been working with the Conservation Department and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for many years to manage their prairie grasses with prescribed fire. Many other landowners and some non-landowners have been burning land without benefit of a plan. Sometimes they get the desired results, but sometimes their fires burn too fiercely or escape onto adjoining lands and cause more damage than good.

The Conservation Department continually works with landowners to train them on the safe and effective use of prescribed fire. Landowner prescribed fire workshops are conducted periodically in all parts of the state. These workshops provide the landowner with some basic knowledge in conducting a prescribed burn. Occasionally, they are followed up with a demonstration burn.

Our offices have current weather information and are able to advise you if burning conditions are expected to make your prescribed fire hard to contain. In addition, there are now some very good weather websites, such as those administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NOAA website contains a twice-daily Fire Weather Forecast during the spring and fall burn season.

Take advantage of both the training and weather availability if you are thinking of doing any prescribed burning.

The physical demand on fire crew members during wildfires, as compared to prescribed fires, is very different. In a wildfire situation, heat and smoke are intense and decisions must be made instantly. In a prescribed fire situation, prior planning and preparation makes it unnecessary for firefighters to endure the heat and smoke. Train, plan and equip for your prescribed fire prior to lighting so that using this management tool does not turn into a wildfire that can risk life and property. Many county soil and water districts and some conservation organizations rent for a small fee prescribed burn equipment such as drip torches, leaf rakes and water tanks.

These days, there are a few prescribed fire contractors across the state who can be hired to help do a prescribed burn. These contractors have a narrow window in which to provide their services and should be contacted well in advance of the planned burn. If you feel it is not within your ability to conduct the burn with a high degree of certainty, securing the services of a prescribed burn contractor is a very good option. The Conservation Department offices maintain a list of prescribed fire contractors, or you can visit our website at and search for “conservation contractors.”

Using Prescribed Fire

If you have decided that prescribed fire is a good management tool for your land, and you are willing to take the care and time needed to do it right, you have one more question to answer: “Am I going to use prescribed fire periodically, and continue to do it right?”

Prescribed burning, just as grazing, haying or chemical application, is a management practice that must be repeated for maximum effectiveness. Forage production will only benefit for a few years following a burn.

Plant diversity and vigor will only be stimulated for a few years with one burn. Plant diversity will probably continue to change over time in a managed natural community, but only if periodic prescribed burns are continued. The frequency of burns will vary by plant community from once every few years to once in 10-20 years, but repeat burns will be necessary to maintain the benefits of using prescribed fire.

If you plan to use prescribed fire:

  • Contact the Conservation Department for information and training.
  • Prepare a burn plan.
  • Stick to your burn plan—call it off if anything isn’t right.
  • Get the most current Fire Weather Forecast information from NOAA or your nearest Conservation Department office.
  • On burn day, let your neighbors, the local Conservation Department office and county 911 fire dispatch know when you plan to ignite the prescribed burn.
  • Consider securing the services of a prescribed fire contractor.
  • Be committed to using prescribed fire periodically.


Prescribed fire is a highly effective management tool, but it takes time, thought and commitment to ensure that you burn only what you want. If you aren’t going to achieve what you want, don’t burn it, and if you can’t contain it, don’t light it.

Prescribed Fire Can Help You Manage Your Property

  1. Produce more forage for cattle in native warm-season grass plantings and prairies.
  2. Increase vigor and diversity of plant and animal life in prairies.
  3. Control woody plants and exotic grasses in grasslands and idled fields. Fire can be effective in reducing cedar and other tree species from native idled land. It also retards exotic grasses and encourages the annual weeds that provide food for wildlife.
  4. Restore vigor and plant diversity to glades, woodlands and savannas. Fire can rejuvenate cedar-invaded glades and savannahs that have lost their grassy understory. Extreme caution is required to see that the glade or savanna burn doesn’t become a wildfire in the woods.
  5. Fire may help in woodland and forest management. It may be useful to not only control competing woody plants, but to also stimulate the regeneration of oaks.
  6. Periodic prescribed fire, done carefully, may increase the biological diversity within a woodland.
  7. Help restore historical pine woodlands. Fire is useful in promoting pine regeneration and maintaining a native grass and forb community associated with pine. We are currently studying how fire also helps control woody species that compete with pine.

Partnering With More Than 800 Fire Departments to Protect Missouri From Wildfire

Missouri’s rural fire departments have worked cooperatively with the Conservation Department to protect life, property and natural resources from wildfire for many decades. In the early days of this partnership, fire departments came to back up the Conservation Department’s wildfire suppression resources on fires that were difficult to control.

Over the past 30 years, the Department has helped organize, equip and train fire departments to assist with wildfire suppression. Over time, the roles of the partners have changed. Today, fire departments do a majority of the initial attack of wildfires. In most of the state, the Department serves as the backup when difficult fires occur. This backup is often in the form of sending a bulldozer to build fuel breaks in order to catch a fast-moving fire.

Through Mutual Aid Agreements, the Department provides Volunteer Fire Assistance matching grants and federal excess property to help fire departments equip themselves. The Department also provides varying levels of training in wildfire suppression. The level of the training provided depends on the training need determined by the fire department.

Smokey Bear

Smokey Bear, the fire-fighting symbol of fire prevention since the 1940s, is still around. Smokey has been one of the most successful advertising campaigns in the nation’s history. His messages on fire prevention to schoolchildren have resulted in a generation of people who are aware of the dangers and damages of wildfires.

Now that we know some fires can do good things for the environment, Smokey is changing his message to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” His message of responsibility with fire in the woods is just as valid today as it was in 1944. Here in Missouri, with all of the houses being built in our beautiful forestlands, it is crucial that we let no fires, wild or prescribed, cause damage. This can be accomplished by preventing wildfires but also by having our homes prepared for wildfires when they occur. Preparing homes to be wildfire safe is one of the key goals of the Firewise program. Visit the Firewise website at for more information on making your home safe from wildfire.

Smokey’s Prescribed Fire Checklist—Don’t Burn If:

  • You don’t have a written burn plan.
  • You can’t stay with the fire until it is safe.
  • You don’t have the needed equipment or people.
  • Your firelines aren’t in place and functional.
  • You don’t have the right weather or it is expected to change during the burn.
  • You haven’t contacted neighbors, the Conservation Department or your county 911 fire dispatch center.


    Rural Forest Fire Equipment Center

    Missouri’s participation in the Federal Excess Personal Property (FEPP) program has been extensive. The Department’s Forestry Division began acquiring federal excess equipment in the early 1960s. The availability of excess property helped Forestry Division staff across the state work with hundreds of communities to establish a network of mostly volunteer-based fire departments. Today, with the help of the FEPP, many of those same small fire departments have grown to a size and to a quality that is unbelievable.


    • The Rural Forest Fire Equipment Center (RFFEC) opened in Lebanon in 1991. The RFFEC, under the leadership of the excess property coordinator, operates with a dedicated staff to manage the FEPP. Numerous local Forestry Division staff work one on one with fire departments to help administer the FEPP as well. Throughout the life of FEPP, the benefits to Missouri’s rural fire service, to forest resource protection, to communities in need of fire protection and to the Missouri Department of Conservation have been enormous.


      —by Ruby Anderson

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This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler