Here’s What You Should Know About Prescribed Burning

It may seem counterintuitive, but prescribed burning is a method used to reduce uncontrolled wildfire outbreaks in the future. Unfortunately, the health impacts and increasing climate unpredictability mean prescribed burning still presents very real risks and challenges in the short term. We explore the pros and cons of prescribed burning and why tracking and distinguishing them from uncontrolled blazes is vital for long-term planning and real-time decision-making, especially for navigation, insurance, and infrastructure companies.

What is Prescribed Burning?

According to the US Forest Service, prescribed fires, also known as prescribed burns or controlled burns, involve the controlled usage of fire to burn a certain area of land, under specific weather conditions, managed by a team of fire experts in order to achieve a specific outcome. The motivation behind prescribed burning could be the maintenance of forest health, protection of biodiversity, or reduction of future fire risk.

Cultural burning also has been used by many indigenous peoples around the globe for thousands of years, often to improve the health of vegetation and animals. In many countries around the world, however, the culture of fire management and usage has changed during the 20th century and impacted the ecological systems used for some fires. Trying to avoid any fire has led in some areas to a tremendous accumulation of fuels which contributed to some of the mega-fires in recent years.

How Much Prescribed Burning Took Place in the USA & Australia in April 2022?

The BreezoMeter Wildfire Tracker can now identify whether a wildfire is prescribed, using information from local sources.

Using this tool, we can see increasing numbers of large fires in the U.S. and Australia marked as prescribed throughout most of the month of April.

This correlates to the beginning of autumn in Australia and spring in the United States, which are both ideal seasons for prescribed burns as the environmental conditions are less risky.

What is the Impact of Prescribed Burning?

Although there are positive effects of prescribed fires, the smoke produced from the burning of vegetation can have a significant impact on air quality, human health, and the environment. Wildfire smoke is a mixture of chemical compounds including gasses like carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, particle pollution, and more.

The specific composition of wildfire smoke is related to the type of vegetation burned, but it always contains PM2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5μm). PM2.5 is a major health concern, as it can be easily inhaled, leading to respiratory and heart inflammation. PM2.5 can pass into the bloodstream, from where it can be transported to multiple organs including the skin and the brain according to recent research.

One example can be seen in Central U.S., around Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas, where prescribed burns are very common. Local authorities issue health advisories for vulnerable populations at risk of health effects from inhaling air pollution ahead of prescribed burns, advising them to limit outdoor activities.

Unfortunately prescribed burns can potentially spiral out of control, spreading further and causing unintended consequences if not managed correctly. In April 2022, in New Mexico, two prescribed fires at Cook’s Peak and Hermit Peak, north of Las Vegas, New Mexico, spread uncontrollably due to unforeseen strong winds, each burning ~50,000 acres. The latest scientific research into prescribed burns suggests that the “safe” window for controlled burns is narrowing, as rainfall and climates change.

Why We Added the ‘Prescribed Burn’ Label to BreezoMeter’s Wildfire Tracker+

When a fire is labeled as “prescribed” in BreezoMeter’s Wildfire Tracker it creates a greater understanding of the fire and its associated risks, in real-time. The knowledge that a fire is being actively managed by fire services enables companies in various fields including the navigation, insurance, and infrastructure industries to make decisions knowing the fire is safely contained.

Decisions in the face of an uncontrolled wildfire are drastically different and less certain, as the situation on the ground changes dynamically. Hence, allowing to differentiate between wildfires and prescribed fires allows for better planning.

Prescribed fires are also important to track, alert end-users to the presence of a fire in their environment, and inform them about the impact on air quality. The distinction is that the potential risks are decidedly different.

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Dr Yvonne Boose
Dr Yvonne Boose

Data and Accuracy Lead Scientist @BreezoMeter. I hold a PhD in Atmospheric Physics and formerly worked as a Postdoc at the German Aerospace Center. I love translating science to real-life improvements at BreezoMeter.