Controlled burn Controlled burn at Goodnight Henry preserve. © Tom Fielden/The Nature Conservancy

Stories in Missouri

Missouri Fire Program

For over 30 years, The Nature Conservancy in Missouri has been using controlled burns to keep our forests and grassland healthy. Fire is a natural event that has been shaping our landscape for thousands of years. It plays an important role in the health of many habitats – and without fire, many plant and animal species would disappear. 

Beyond the ecological benefits of controlled burns, they can also enhance community safety by reducing the buildup of dead wood and other debris that can contribute to unnaturally intense wildfires. 

A photo of Tom Fielden
Tom Fielden Missouri's Stewardship and Fire Manager © TNC

Talking Fire with Tom

Tom Fielden is the Conservancy's Stewardship and Fire Manager in Missouri

TNC: How many acres does The Conservancy typically burn in MO each year?
Tom: On average, we typically burn between 3000 and 5000 acres a year. That can fluctuate depending on how many partner burns we participate in with other agencies. 

TNC: Why is fire an important conservation strategy?
Tom: Historically speaking, modern ecologists point to widespread Native Americans use of fire on the Missouri landscape from 200 to 1000 years ago, managing hunting grounds and clearing areas, as the principal influence that maintained Missouri’s open prairie and woodland environments.

Controlled burns can optimize plant growth by returning nutrients to the soil. In many cases, new growth appears within a couple of weeks. This is possible because controlled burns move quickly and at a lower intensity than most wildfires, leaving root systems alive under the soil. Also, fire produces healthier, more productive habitat by killing the tops of woody plants such as willow and oak, causing them to sprout from the base. The resulting shoots provide tender, nutritious browse for deer, elk, and other animals. Small mammals usually are first to seek the rewards of a fire. When their populations begin to rise, their predators are not far behind, and the chain of life mends itself.

TNC: What are some of the benefits of regular burns on our landscapes?
Tom: As well as some of the same reasons above, a science-based approach to fire management is demonstrated on Chilton Creek Preserve where our controlled burn regime is implemented on a random rotational basis of 1-4 years, delineated across several fire units ranging from 320 acres to 680 acres, with one unit on an annual burn rotation. We have 250 monitoring plots established to quantify changes in vegetation strata from the effects of fire in the Chilton Creek drainage. Preliminary data has demonstrated that controlled burns have increased biodiversity across the monitored area.

Many of our preserves were acquired because of their unique biodiversity. Through the years, our fire management program has maintained - and in most cases - increased the quality of habitat and biodiversity on those properties.

TNC: Does TNC do outreach with partners or landowners about the importance of controlled burns?
Tom: Yes. I am on the board of the Missouri Prescribed Fire Council. We are focused on working with contractors and private landowners who currently do controlled burns or want to introduce them but are apprehensive due to liability, lack of training and/or lack of resources. We have been coordinating meetings with contractors, private landowners, and local fire departments with a very good turnout to educate and demonstrate the ecological benefits of implementing controlled burns.

The Conservancy also partners with The National Park Service (NPS) and Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) on cooperative burns in the Ozarks, and have cooperative agreements with NPS and MDC to assist us in fire management throughout the state. We also work with private landowners to expand the use of this critical management tool beyond the boundaries of our own preserves. 

TNC: How long have you been working in this field [working with controlled burns]?
Tom: I have been working in prescribed and wildland fire since 1986.

Doug Ladd in fire gear
Doug Ladd Former Director of Conservation in Missouri © TNC


Doug Ladd devoted much of his career teaching, demonstrating, and researching the ecological benefits of controlled burns.

To honor his commitment, we have established the Doug Ladd Fire & Stewardship Fund. “Having the ability to increase outreach, provide additional training, and maintain necessary equipment will allow us to build upon and further advance a big part of Doug’s incredible legacy with this chapter,” said Adam McLane, Missouri State Director.

  • Winter Frost to Spring Fire

    A helpful guide to the importance of controlled burns and some available resources for landowners who are interested in incorporating them on their property. Read the Article

  • Burning for Protection

    Klamath TREX and Yurok TREX seek to train everyone from veteran firefighters to students on how to use traditional controlled burning techniques to clear out forest fuels that build up as wildfire. Read the Article

  • A View From Above

    Watch drone footage from a Klamath TREX burn that Tom assisted on in Orleans, CA. Watch the Video