An indispensable tool in the management of prairies
Fire is an essential element of the prairie ecosystem. Many of the plants have evolved to adapt to the presence of fire, and to thrive in it. Today, natural fires have been all but removed from the ecosystem. If one wants to perpetuate the ecosystem, one has to use fire as a management tool. The resources found here are meant to help people understand the relationship of fires and the ecosystem, and how to properly, and safely apply those principles.
Who should/can/does perform prescribed burning on private land in Iowa?
The first issue of private land burning is definitely liability. Only one insurance company in the nation is known to insure private contractors who burn for a fee (the contractor is required to have a degree in forestry, and the policy ends with the first claim). Private landowners are usually covered for damages by their homeowners insurance. However, if a knowledgeable person is present during the burn, that person can be held responsible for any accidental damage.
How have people dealt with the liability issue?
In Texas and Oklahoma, landowners with vast amounts of rangeland or prairie form associations whose members agree not to sue the others in the event of fire escape. There are standards required for each prescribed burn, and a minimum amount of insurance is carried by the group leader.
Is there data that prove that prescribed fire is inherently dangerous?
Scott Moats, who is a burn crew leader for TNC in the Loess Hills, stated that 1 in 172 prescribed fires results in escape. Only one member of the discussion expressed belief that you can eliminate the risk of damage when burning. However, it was conceded that public perception and policy is usually based on wildfire statistics. The National Park Service prepares for escapes with software called “Behave” which predicts the behavior of fire in a particular scenario. In certain states, including FL and NC, there are specific standards for landowners performing a burn which help protect them from legal problems.
How are private landowners performing prescribed burns in Iowa?
Several groups in Iowa, including Indian Creek Nature Center, the Nature Conservancy, some CCBs and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, provide Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and a few tools, along with one-day training sessions for landowners interested in burning their own land. One day of training is not considered adequate, and in fact, many landowners are convinced by the training that they can not handle a burn. TNC is developing a burn training video, to be used in conjunction with field training and as a refresher course for those who have received training in the past. In urban as well as rural areas, some have found that informing neighbors before the burn works well to prepare the public (so that windows are closed, nobody panics, etc.). In some counties, local fire departments will burn private lands for a donation from the landowner.
What are some precautions to be taken when burning private land?
Always write and follow a prescription. Watch a fire for a good hour or more after it appears to be done, to prevent unnoticed flare-up. Burning as evening approaches often creates a situation where burn conditions become less favorable as the burn progresses. Also, looking for burning embers in the dark is easier. Night burns are not recommended, as they tend to attract spectators who may put themselves or others in danger. Smoke on roadways is another important situation to prepare for. A vehicular accident caused by smoke is as likely to spur a law suit as a burned barn.
What can we do to bring fire back to the landscape where it is needed?
The best solution for private lands appears to be trained burn teams. Supported financially by various agencies in the state, thoroughly equipped to handle every aspect of prescribed burning, trained and physically fit, these teams could be deployed wherever they were needed throughout the burning seasons. This model already exists in some areas of the country. The National Park Service has employed such a team from South Dakota for areas in northeastern Iowa. The main obstacle is expense. There is federal funding available (Forest Service?) to enable fire suppression and control in some areas. Also, the conservation programs (including WHIP, CRP, WRP) that put a lot of native grasses on the ground may provide cost share funds to landowners for burning. The average cost to perform prescribed burning is around $100/acre, but this goes up significantly when more people, equipment and precautions are used. One study found that the more experienced a burn team leader, the more costly the burns become, since the experienced burn manager will take more precautions.