Fire Safety for Pasture Burning

Weed control is made easy with pasture burning, but be sure to follow these fire safety tips.

| March/April 2015

It’s springtime, and in many rural areas that means it’s time to burn pastures and native prairie remnants to release nutrients, rid the area of built-up dry vegetation, set cool-season weedy species back a few notches, and kill invasive shrubs and trees. You might not realize it, but the vast grasslands of North America were once maintained naturally by hugely destructive events such as fire set by lightning strikes and trampling effects of huge herds of bison moving through. In more recent times, fire was used by Native people to help control brushy encroachment and ostensibly to improve forage productivity. According to various state extension service publications, controlled burning has been in use for thousands of years to keep grasslands thriving.

Although it is still scientifically accepted as an important native prairie management tool, and culturally accepted as an appropriate and useful pasture and hay meadow management tool in many regions, the closer upwind you are located to a dense urban area, the more pressure there is to limit or even ban the burn. In some areas, a burn every year is beneficial, while in others every three to four years may make more sense. Check with your local grassland experts for advice relevant to your area, and, of course, check to be sure that you can legally use fire as a management tool—and take great care to comply with all local regulations and notifications.

Preparation and strategy

It’s best to check with your local extension office for ideal burn dates. Months before your planned pasture burn, you will want to start thinking about your plan of attack and general burn strategy. Walk the area and identify any natural firebreaks and routes for runaway fires to escape, and locate all fence lines, power lines and any structures or areas where fire would have a disastrous affect. Pay close attention to your perimeter fence lines—let your neighbors know what you plan and accommodate their concerns. Draw a sketch of the area and make note of any areas where the fuel is particularly heavy, such as a patch of cedar trees that could burn hot and drop flaming debris where you do not want it.

Next, define a boundary 8 to 15 feet from the fence line, or other hypothetical line, beyond which you will not let the fire progress, and create firebreaks—minimally you should mow the vegetation close all the way around the area to be burned. Do this in the fall to minimize remaining fuel in the firebreak. Alternatively, you can disc or plow your firebreak. Take advantage of natural firebreaks like creeks, ponds, roadways, rock walls, etc., whenever practical to do so.

Once you have the boundaries worked out and the firebreaks in place, it’s time to begin gathering equipment and assembling your crew.

Gather the goods

Depending on the size and complexity of the area to be burned, you might wish to invite three to six or more level-headed and physically able friends to help you burn. Ideally you will want three folks on each fire line—one to light and two to control the fire line. In some cases you will only need a single crew, while in others you may need two or more to ignite and control fire lines that will eventually coalesce. In large burns, you may wish to light two flank fires simultaneously after both crews work the back fire from the center of the line toward the flanks, for example.

3/30/2015 8:18:32 AM

I have visited China on three extended teaching stays. In China they have burned fields for 5000 years but it causes a dilemma. The farmers must burn fields to add nutrients, to kill the insect eggs and to kill the weed seeds from last year. Burning adds to the severe air pollution but stopping would reduce the crops. The alternative is worse, if adding fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and weed killers to their fields the water pollution would be much worse and the factories producing the fertilizers, pesticides and such would pollute the air, the water and the grounds even more. This is an issue in all third world and developing countries.

2/25/2015 9:00:25 AM

I own land in Kansas and Colorado. We do NOT burn in Colorado...ever.

2/25/2015 8:59:06 AM

I live in Kansas and we burn here. If we don't, we end up with a pasture full of cedar trees. Not native and very invasive. Nothing eats cedar. You have a great resource in your County Extension Agent no matter where you live. They will tell you the best times to burn for good weed kill and minimal damage to native grasses. They have lots of pamphlets on it. Their help is free (if you consider tax supported things to be free). Keep in mind that is is really easy for the wind to pick up just a little and the fire to get away from you. You can lose an entire stack of bales, wood posts in a fence, or a barn before you can get the fire department out. That is why you MUST have a permit and call and tell the FD you want to burn. They might say no if they are overwhelmed with wildfires that day. One of the prettiest things you will ever see is the fires at night climbing the Flint Hills for miles. This guy does beautiful pictures of it. And don't worry about the bunnies and the deer. The ravines and tree lines are rarely burned and the fires aren't hot enough to hurt things that burrow in the ground.

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