Prescribed fire: how a smaller fire now can help prevent a bigger one this summer.

Photo of a prescribed fire in a field of dead grass.

The geese are back and the Easter bunny is getting ready to make his annual appearance: spring is definitely on the way. As the snow melts, we all know that the dead grass below it doesn’t necessarily look pretty – but did you know it can also be dangerous?

No matter how ‘wet’ spring is, grass dries quickly – and once it’s dry, it makes great fuel for wildfires. When winds are high and the amount of moisture in the air is low – grass fires can travel fast and become difficult to control. And that can have devastating results for communities.

The good news is that we can take action now to help prevent this possibility. Ironically, one of the tools we have available is the same thing we’re looking to prevent – fire. Prescribed fire projects can remove the dry grass, making fields less flammable. The result helps minimize the chances of wildfires later in the season.

Of course, these projects are only effective if they stay controlled. That’s why we take many safety precautions while planning and executing them:

  • Prescribed fires in grassland areas are typically planned in the early spring,  since the snow in the surrounding forests provides us with natural protection against the fire spreading. (This also provides great training opportunities for wildland firefighters, right before they head into fire season.)
  • Fires are only scheduled under perfect conditions. On one hand, there has to be enough humidity and wind to allow the fire to burn. But if conditions are too good – if the winds are too strong, or there’s too little moisture in the air – the prescribed fire is rescheduled. This minimizes the risk that it will get out of control.
  • Before the main burn, firefighters create boundaries of either low intensity burning or a perimeter of soaked grass. Once the main burn area is lit, crews then patrol the area until the fire is completely out.
  • Prescribed fire in grassland areas are done near communities to protect them throughout the fire season. Whenever a burn is scheduled anywhere near a community, we work closely with that community to make sure things are kept safe.
Prescribed fire map for 2014.

Click on this map to see the planned prescribed fires in grasslands for this year. (Note that depending on conditions, some might not happen.)

Once new, healthy grass grows in, the risk of grass fires diminishes. But our use of prescribed fire doesn’t end here. As spring turns to summer, larger, more complex prescribed fires are planned. Besides helping to prevent future wildfire, these projects may also have other purposes – including enhancing wildlife habitat, and increasing the health of the forest.

If you want to receive updates about prescribed fires and wildfire in your area, sign up for 310-FIRE mobile bannerupdates (click on your region) or download the Alberta Wildfire app for your Android device, iPhone, or iPad. And remember – any time you see a wildfire, call 310-FIRE (3473) to report it.

Audio of this interview is available on Soundcloud.

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