CHAPTER 11:  PRESCRIBED FIRE PROGRAM


11.1 PRESCRIBED FIRES

Prescribed fires (also called controlled fires) are fires intentionally ignited by specifically trained fire professionals to accomplish management objectives in specific areas under defined conditions identified in an approved prescribed fire plan. Unlike wildfires, prescribed fires are conducted only when conditions are acceptable.(1)

Strategically placed prescribed fires offer the opportunity to reduce the threat of uncontrollable wildfires and increase firefighter safety. When a wildfire burns in a recently burned area the rate of spread is slower, the fire intensity is lessened, the access through the vegetation is easier and over-all there is a greater degree of safety for the firefighter. This is because the volume of dead needles, leaves and branches is reduced when an area is regularly burned. This process is called fuel load reduction.

There may also be ecological benefits to prescribed fire. It is commonly believed that the Central Pine Barrens is a mosaic of fire-maintained natural communities and supports many species, including scrub oak, that could be favored by periodic fire. Wildlife that feed on resprouting vegetation following a fire and that prefer open sunny habitat profit from fires as well. With effective planning, a prescribed fire management program can benefit the Central Pine Barrens fire suppression program as well as meet ecological goals.

Smoke emissions from prescribed fire are generally less than wildfires, because prescribed fires are set under conditions which are amenable to more efficient combustion and less smoldering. This has been demonstrated through various prescribed burns.

11.2 PRESCRIBED FIRE STANDARDS

All prescribed fires will comply with Articles 9-1105 of NYS Environmental Conservation Law, the Central Pine Barrens Land Use Plan and all applicable local regulations and standards.

All prescribed fires will:

a. Have a prescribed burn unit plan for each burn.
b. Be conducted by certified prescribed burn boss and qualified crew.
c. Secure open burning permits from NYS DEC.
d. Secure permit from the town Fire Marshal.
e. Secure concurrence from the local district Fire Chief.
f. Notify local emergency officials.
g. Advise local residents who live within 0.5 miles of the burn unit.
h. Prepare a general press release to inform the public of proposed burns.

11.3 COMPREHENSIVE PRESCRIBED FIRE MANAGEMENT PLAN

Before a prescribed burn program is implemented, a comprehensive prescribed fire management plan must be prepared. The comprehensive prescribed fire management plan will present ecological and land management objectives, justify these objectives, consider alternatives to burning, identify priority areas and annual acreage goals, describe the research and monitoring, analyze the weather patterns, present fuel models, and discuss fuel reduction, wildfire policies, smoke management, safety issues and legal considerations.

Upon completion, the plan is subject to review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (Article 8 of the New York State Environmental Conservation Law) and will be distributed to interested parties, including but not limited to fire departments. Public meetings will be held to present and discuss the plan.

11.4 PRESCRIBED FIRE IMPLEMENTATION

a. Prescribed burning may have three objectives: management burns (fuel reduction), training and demonstration, and research for ecological responses. An individual prescribed burn may be a combination of types with multiple objectives.

b. Safety is of paramount importance to the prescribed fire program. Each prescribed burn is carried out only under specified conditions of wind speed, wind direction, temperature and humidity (prescribed unit burn plan). Such burns are carefully planned with firebreaks established ahead of time.

c. An interagency program will be developed to train additional crew members, coordinate fire management activities, and cooperate in the planning and implementation of the prescribed burns. At present the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Suffolk County Parks, and The Nature Conservancy have staff trained to conduct prescribed fire management in the Central Pine Barrens.

Volunteer fire departments are not expected to implement the prescribed fire management program or to provide personnel and equipment. However, fire departments will have the option to participate in the planning, training, and implementation.

e. If a prescribed burn exceeds a predefined size or area, as detailed in the unit burn plan, then it is considered out of prescription. The local fire department will immediately be called and the local fire chief will assume command and authority for the suppression. Any on scene personnel will fall under the fire chief's jurisdiction.

f. The prescribed fire management program in the Central Pine Barrens will begin slowly and carefully with ample time for careful analysis of all issues. The first burns will be small with a low level of complexity. The prescribed burn program can only grow as the "comfort level" grows.

The site locations and amount of acreage will be determined in the course of preparing the comprehensive prescribed fire management plan. Burn units will be selected according to the strategic goals set by the Wildfire Task Force and/or individual fire departments in conjunction with landowning agencies as well as ecological goals determined by landowning agencies. Properties owned by New York State, Suffolk County, and The Nature Conservancy will be initial priority sites.

11.5 PRESCRIBED FIRE STAFFING QUALIFICATIONS

All prescribed burns are conducted by a trained and qualified crew supervised by a prescribed fire leader who has specialized training and experience in fire management. As an individual gains higher levels of training in both suppression and prescribed fire management and gains more experience, he/she is able to assume higher levels of responsibility in the crew organization.

11.6 MONITORING AND EVALUATION

Monitoring and evaluation of the prescribed fire management program is a necessary component of the prescribed fire management program. Effective monitoring provides the basis for objective evaluation and tracking of the program, and as necessary, modification of management practices to ensure that the goals are being achieved. Both ecological effects and fuel load reduction will be examined.

11.7 SMOKE MANAGEMENT GUIDELINES

Smoke management is a serious concern when using prescribed fire as a management tool. Not only is public health a concern, but the potential public nuisance and hazard due to visibility impairment of residential areas and highways is also an issue. Emissions from prescribed burns are a regulatory concern due to air quality standards. Suffolk County is designated as an ozone non-attainment area due to its proximity to New York City.

All prescribed fire planning will take smoke management into account. Prescribed burning will only be conducted when the atmosphere is slightly unstable to allow for maximum lift of the smoke column. Prescriptions will include practices that reduce or control the amount of smoke and direct it away from smoke sensitive areas. Ignition pattern, timing of burns, location of unit, size of unit, and wind direction are variables that can be utilized to minimize smoke hazards.

Every prescribed burn will have smoke spotters with radios who will report on the direction and density of smoke throughout the ignition period. If smoke does not meet the requirements of the prescription, the burn will be shut down immediately.

11.8 PUBLIC AWARENESS

Public awareness about the role of prescribed burning in managing the Central Pine Barrens will be developed through general education and outreach programs. Residents that live in the vicinity of burn units will receive advance notification and opportunity to comment and if desired, notification of the prescribed burns on the day of the burn.

11.R RECOMMENDATIONS

1. Note prescribed burns can generally be performed only during a very limited or specific time frame since the conditions are very stringent.