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Covering St. Francois, Madison, Iron and Reynolds counties
With spring approaching, many may see smoke rising from fires in fields. This will most likely be due to the use of prescribed burning.
Prescribed burning is an important tool that can help landowners achieve many management goals, including improving habitat for plant diversity or wildlife, timber stand improvement, and invasive species control. It does not matter whether a property is five or 500 acres; prescribed burning can be a useful tool.
Prescribed burns need to be conducted under specific weather conditions, and, unfortunately, it can be difficult to muster the people and equipment required when a weather window (limited time that the weather is suitable) opens.
Russell Myers, treasurer of the St. Francois Mountains Prescribed Burn Association, described the ideal weather conditions.
“We call it a “prescribed” burn because, just like a medical prescription, the fire is designed to treat specific conditions,” he said. “Choosing the right weather for the fire is an important part of the prescription. The ambient temperature, humidity and windspeed directly affect how hot a fire is, such as low humidity and high winds make hot fires. So, if you just want to clear dry forest leaf litter or grass then you would plan to burn when the humidity is higher and the wind speed is lower.
“If you want to kill green living plants, then you need a hotter fire. The wind direction is also a critical part of the prescription because it controls how the fire will move through the topography and which way the smoke will disperse. In general, we try to set the fire so it burns into the wind instead of having the wind behind it. Topography is a major consideration because hot air rises and will drive the fire rapidly up-slope. We try to avoid having the wind behind a fire on a steep slope.”
If an owner is lucky enough to get in contact with one of the few professional burn contractors in the region, the cost to burn is generally between $75 and $100 per acre. To address the combined problems of manpower and cost, Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) are being formed around the state. PBAs are non-profit organizations whose members work together in a cooperative way to help each other plan and execute burns. The PBAs generally own equipment that can be used by members for burn execution.
The St. Francois Mountains PBA, which will cover St. Francois, Madison, Iron and Reynolds counties, as well as adjacent areas, was incorporated in December 2023 and is open for memberships.
“We have two types of membership,” said Myers. “Full membership costs $50 for a year and is for people who plan to execute prescribed burns and will make use of the PBA equipment and volunteers. People who want to learn more about prescribed burning but do not plan to utilize PBA resources can join as associate members at no cost. Associate members are encouraged to participate in burns and training to learn more about how to use fire on their properties.
“There are no requirements to join the association, but full members must have completed the Missouri Department of Conservation “Certified Burner” training or its equivalent before they can use the PBA to execute a burn on their property. All members are encouraged to complete the burn certification.”
Direct benefits of PBA membership can include assistance with burn plan preparation and review, burn site preparation, use of equipment, and volunteer staff to manage the burn. Indirect benefits include the opportunity to see how other people are using fire to achieve their property goals and to participate in a variety of different burns to see first-hand how they work.
Missouri and national records show that about one in 500 prescribed burns result in legal action due to escaped fires. The Prescribed Burning Act (RSMo Section 537.354) states that a landowner or agent of the landowner will not be liable for damages, injury, or loss caused by a prescribed burn or the smoke from a prescribed burn unless they are proven to be negligent.
Gaining Burner Certification from the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and working with a PBA are the easiest ways to prevent an escaped fire and avoid negligence claims.
“An example of negligence would be initiating a burn when the ground is really dry, the humidity is low, and the wind is high,” said Myers. “This is a totally predictable recipe for an escape. Another example might be starting a burn without having well-defined fire lines to control the edges of the fire or starting a fire without enough people to monitor the edges of the fire.
“The ‘Burn Plan’ that we develop for a prescribed burn defines the weather conditions, fire line specifications, equipment and personnel requirements as well as contingency plans for dealing with escaped fire. Even if things don’t go exactly according to the plan, considering all these things in advance dramatically reduces the chance of something getting out of control.”
For more information about Missouri PBAs, visit the Missouri Prescribed Fire Council website at https://moprescribedfire.org/pba-locations-contacts. Anyone interested in becoming a Missouri PBA member should contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call/text 573-227-8268.
Stephanie Kim is the assistant editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at email@example.com.