Prescribed Fire FAQs

The Illinois Prescribed Fire Council recently released a report assessing the use of prescribed fire across the state of Illinois. Currently, a mere 6 percent, or roughly 50,000 acres are burned each year. We need more fire to protect our natural areas, and to raise awareness about why this land management technique is so crucial to helping our habitats thrive. Below are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about prescribed fire.

What is prescribed fire?
Prescribed fire is a fire set strategically by an experienced fire crew to keep a natural area, such as a prairie or woodland, healthy.  Prescribed fires are an important land management tool that can reduce the presence of invasive plants, remove hazardous debris (such as dead plant material), and help native wildflowers and other species to thrive. Done correctly, prescribed burns can decrease the risk of wild fires.

Why is it important?
For thousands of years, fire has shaped the habitats of North America, with plants and wildlife adapting to its presence on the land. When native people migrated to the continent, they increased the frequency of fire on the landscape, utilizing it as a tool. In more recent history, prairies have been tilled, forests have been leveled and the fires have ceased. Today, the natural areas we have inherited are waiting for the return of restorative fires to keep them healthy and thriving.

When does it happen and how often?
Prescribed fires are performed in the early spring and fall months when the weather conditions are right for burns to be conducted safely. Crews will rotate between different areas each year. The exact schedule for burns may vary depending on the fire crew’s budget and capacity, but ideally, natural areas are burned every one to four years.

How do fire crews stay safe during prescribed burns?
Before any member of a team participates in a burn, they undergo extensive training to learn how a fire plan is executed and how to correctly use the equipment. On the day of the fire, the crew will have a safety briefing that covers lots of details,including tasks for each crew, how the habitat will be ignited, and how it will be controlled.  Fire crews watch the weather conditions carefully and  burn on days when the wind and moisture conditions are right to keep each member safe. Lastly, fire workers wear special equipment that helps protect them from fire and smoke.

What about plants and animals?
Wildlife has evolved with fire over many millennia.  The larger wildlife easily avoids fire by moving out of the path of the fire.  Smaller animals scurry underground where the fire does no harm.  Rarely do we find dead wildlife in a blackened unit.  We leave some of the best habitats unburned in case there are rare insects over-wintering in the plant litter.

Fire sets back brush and small trees by making them regrow from their roots, which gives a chance for grasses and wildflowers to have precious sunlight to thrive.  Young oak trees need lots of sunlight and do well in a landscape that has repeated low intensity fires. 

Prairie plants have deep roots that allow them to regenerate after a burn. The burn adds nutrients to the soil that helps them grow, providing richer habitat for insects, birds and other wildlife.

What happens if you don’t burn?
Without fire, shrubs and trees begin to overtake the prairie. They can crowd out native grasses and wildflower species, which impacts the insects, birds, and other species who rely on those plants for survival. The longer a prairie goes without fire, the more degraded the habitat becomes, and the survival of rare and endangered species is threatened. Eventually, the investment of money and time spent to protect, manage and restore the prairie can be lost.

Are we burning enough?
The Illinois Prescribed Fire Council recently conducted a Fire Needs Assessment Study to learn  how many natural areas in Illinois are being burned.  the results led the  Council to recommend that private and public land owners should burn at least 213,000 more acres each year to protect the nearly 1.3M acres of natural areas in Illinois.

Why are some areas burned, while others are not?
There are a range of factors that prevent natural areas from being burned. Some of these factors, such as weather, are out of our control. Other factors, such as lack of funding, equipment, and trained staff, can be addressed through partnerships and by increasing public awareness about the importance of fire.

How can I get involved?
To learn more about how you can volunteer and get involved with a burn crew, visit our volunteer page.


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