Wild or Prescribed Fire: What’s the Difference?

By Luke Harlow Agriculture & Natural Resources Agent University of Florida/IFAS
Posted 1/16/19

Have you ever been driving along the highway and notice a thick plume of smoke rising from the forest in the distance? If so, your first thoughts may be, “oh no it’s another wildfire” but …

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Wild or Prescribed Fire: What’s the Difference?


Have you ever been driving along the highway and notice a thick plume of smoke rising from the forest in the distance? If so, your first thoughts may be, “oh no it’s another wildfire” but what you are most likely seeing, especially this time of year, is a prescribed fire.

A prescribed fire is intentionally started to accomplish a specific goal like reducing the likelihood of wildfires or site preparation for planting. I know starting a fire to prevent a fire seems counterintuitive but let me explain.

Excess vegetation slowly accumulates on the ground in forested areas. If this vegetation isn’t managed a lightning strike, improper extinguishing of a fire, or even a cigarette butt can start a wildfire that uses this excess vegetation as fuel.

Wildfires are uncontrolled and unmanaged, and, because of this, they usually result in environmental and ecological damage. For example, wildfires often become so intense that the soil in the forest can reach high temperatures that damage plant root systems which results in total disruption to the ecosystem. And with the recent pictures from California, I probably don’t have to remind you how devastating wildfires can be to property and lives.

On the other hand, a prescribed fire is preplanned, controlled burning that helps reduce the risk of wildfires. For example, regularly burning natural areas – under the right conditions – can minimize the amount of excess vegetation that serves as the fuel for wildfires. Fuel in a forest setting describes any combustible materials such as grass, shrubs, trees, leaves, or other ground litter that can feed a fire.

As I mentioned above, prescribed fire can also be used as a tool for preparing new sites for seeding or planting. This is beneficial because it adds organic matter to our sandy soils which serve as a source of nutrients for newly planted crops. Prescribed burning can also help improve habitat because new plant growth increases the amount of young succulent food sources available for wildlife. It also helps create more open areas that can be used for wildlife travel and feeding.

Prescribed burning is a science that requires extensive knowledge of fire behavior, planning and permitting. Before a burn is approved, fire planners investigate several environmental conditions like humidity, topography, wind direction and airmass stability before writing a prescription. While the point of prescribed burning may be to reduce excess fuel, there does need to be a certain amount of fuel present to create and sustain a fire.

Nearly half of Clay County is forested land and there are plenty of our neighbors and government agencies that use prescribed burning as a tool to receive the abovementioned benefits. For example, over 15 prescribed burns on over 1,300 acres have been conducted in Clay County since January 1, 2019.

So, if you have recently seen the plumes of smoke while driving you should feel reassured our community is using fire science to reduce the potential of wildfires while also improving wildlife habitat.


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