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Landscapes, Winter 2008

A Burning Question

Why are more and more landowners considering prescribed burning as a land-management tool?

Burning field

Photo courtesy of NRCS

Texas rancher Alonzo Peeler is what some may call a "traditionalist."

For almost 10 years, he has stuck to the basics and used the age-old concepts of fire and prescribed burning to control brush and improve the forage on his family’s fifth-generation cattle ranch in South Texas. Now, with the increased fuel prices of late, he is realizing another benefit of prescribed burning — it is cheaper than chemically or mechanically clearing brush.

"Prescribed burning is the most cost-effective option I have," states Peeler, a Texas AgFinance customer.

Prescribed burning is the planned and controlled use of fire as a land- and range-management tool. Although the purpose of prescribed burning varies from region to region, the method should be treated as an integral part of a property’s management plans to be most productive.

Louisiana sugarcane growers use fire before harvest to eliminate 30 to 50 percent of the leafy part of the plants, resulting in a more efficient harvest and improved sugar quality. Foresters in Alabama and Mississippi have found that vegetation and wildlife have adapted to occasional fires and benefit from the effects of prescribed burning. In New Mexico and Texas, landowners like Peeler practice prescribed burning as a way to control unwanted weeds and other vegetation, such as brush or cacti.

In addition, Peeler includes burns in his wildlife management plan to improve forage quality and diversity. Located in an area known for its trophy white-tailed deer and Bobwhite quail, the ranch is home to Macho Creek Lodge, a commercial hunting operation managed by Peeler’s son Justin. 

"We have one area that we’ve burned three times in the last seven or eight years, and you can see the brush starting to open up. The wildlife have really accepted it," Peeler says of the results.

A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a burn plan should be developed one year prior to the actual burn. A good plan will clearly state the objectives of the fire and include additional information, such as a map of the burn area; the amount of grass needed to produce a successful fire; the equipment and personnel requirements; and the desired weather conditions.

Although ideal conditions vary by region, they generally include wind speed of 5 to 10 miles per hour, air temperature of 40 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and relative humidity from 25 to 60 percent. Peeler says that he and his crew carefully monitor the weather through an online service when preparing for a burn, and pay special attention to wind conditions.

"It’s much more accurate at predicting the wind than the rain," Peeler jokes. Conducting a burn during ideal wind conditions can help minimize smoke and prevent visibility issues for those performing the burn as well as for nearby residents.

While he has seen some fires jump outside of the intended boundaries, he has never had any get out of control, and he attributes that to experience and detailed planning. Peeler’s foreman, Derrick Scogin, has attended prescribed burning school.

"Each time you just hope — and know that you’ve done your homework," Peeler says.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

When considering prescribed burning, landowners have an abundance of resources to help them, from creating a burn plan to carrying out the actual fire. Many government agencies, including the NRCS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state Extension services, can be a great help in developing a burn plan.

Using a prescribed burn manager is also a good way to make sure that the burn is carried out effectively and safely. In Texas, with the permission of a county judge, certified burn managers can perform prescribed burns during a burn ban when landowners cannot. Robert Stanley, owner of Burn Specialists, Inc. in Hamilton, Texas, is completing the final step to become a certified prescribed burn specialist.

"The prescribed manager is the ‘burn boss,’" Stanley says. "He is there to oversee the entire operation from start to finish, and must be responsible for the personal safety of workers, ensuring that equipment is in good working order and communicating the burn plan to all involved. He is there to make sure the burn plan is carefully followed."

With 18 years of experience as a firefighter, Stanley says that having a burn manager who is educated about the needs and execution of a burn, and knowledgeable of fire itself, is very important.

"The obstacles most people face when trying to conduct a burn themselves are a lack of education or experience, lack of people to help, lack of proper equipment and the liability involved," Stanley says. “If it was easy, everyone would be doing it."

Local prescribed burning associations are another resource for landowners. Formed to promote the safe and practical use of prescribed burning, they also educate the media and public about the practice, and advocate for landowners’ right to burn. Scogin is president of a local association that he recently helped to form.

“We’re hoping that this association will get people involved," Peeler says.

Although he has used prescribed burning for nearly a decade, Peeler acknowledges that it is not the most modern practice — just a good one.

“The Plains were burned by nature a long time ago, and using burning reverts back years and years," Peeler says. “I haven’t reinvented the wheel."


– Article by Sarah Harris
– Photos courtesy of NRCS