Fire crew burning Curtis Prairie in 2019

Prescribed fire in Curtis Prairie, 2018

What Is Prescribed Fire, and Why Do We Use It?

A prescribed fire is planned and deliberately set within a specific set of parameters (the prescription) so that land managers can meet ecological goals for a pre-determined area. Prescribed fire restores a natural process, stimulates native vegetation growth and seed production, improves wildlife habitat, helps hinder some invasive plant species, and provides valuable training and research opportunities.

The spring prescribed fire season usually runs March through May, as weather, field conditions, and regulations permit. The UW–Madison Arboretum uses prescribed fire to manage many acres of remnant and restored prairies, oak savannas, woodlands, and wetlands—native Wisconsin ecosystems that are fire dependent.

Prescribed fire professionals write detailed plans for each burn unit (i.e., area to be treated with fire), which include the weather parameters, site conditions, firebreak preparations, required personnel, and equipment necessary to achieve the management goals and ensure the safety of the fire crew and surrounding people and property. Prescribed fire crew members have taken wildland fire training and use full protective clothing, appropriate equipment, and vehicles carrying water tanks.

Fires are conducted within a specific set of parameters (the prescription) that include temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity, and fuel conditions, among others. Before and during each burn, the fire manager checks that all current and expected parameters are within prescribed ranges to conduct a safe fire, have good smoke lift, and meet the land care goals.

A prescribed fire, planned and conducted by trained professionals, differs from a fire set by a private citizen with an approved permit to burn a ditch, yard waste, etc., on their property. Prescribed fire professionals procure all applicable permits as one of many steps during the planning phase, which also includes site preparation, writing the prescription, regularly checking conditions, and notifying the appropriate and required fire and emergency officials before setting the fire.

Ecological benefits of prescribed fires:

  • Many native prairie, savanna, woodland and wetland plants evolved with fire and depend on it for regeneration.
  • Prescribed fires are one tool used to control invasive species, along with cutting, mowing, pulling, and herbicide.
  • Prescribed fires consume excess plant material, which encourages new plant growth and eliminates accumulated material that could contribute to wildfires.
  • Prescribed fires are critical to diverse native plant habitats, which support diverse wildlife.

Prescribed Fire Quick Facts

  • The Wisconsin DNR doesn’t regulate burning permits in most of Dane County; only the far northwest corner is in the WDNR fire protection area.
  • The DNR Fire Danger Ratings—Low, Moderate, High, Very High and Extreme—inform people about fire conditions and recommends the general public not burn when ratings are High to Extreme. The ratings system is a public information, not regulatory, tool.
  • Local municipalities and governing bodies such as fire departments, town chairpersons, county fire chiefs’ associations, etc., may prohibit outdoor burning when conditions warrant higher fire danger ratings. This is often referred to as a “burn ban.” The DNR does not issue burn bans, but may suspend burn permits day-to-day in DNR protection areas when conditions warrant.
  • A Red Flag Warning is issued by the National Weather Service, in conjunction with the DNR and the US Forest Service, alerting land managers and others to potential or developing conditions that could rapidly increase wildfire activity. A Red Flag Warning is not considered a burn ban. During Red Flag Warnings, the DNR will suspend burn permits, and other regulatory agencies are likely to restrict burning.
  • When the Fire Danger Rating is High (or above), professional fire crews may still safely conduct a prescribed fire with proper site preparation, safe practices and trained personnel. However, regulatory agencies will likely recommend the general public does not burn. Fire danger ratings are issued countywide, yet site-specific conditions can vary widely.
  • The Arboretum gets permission from the City of Madison and City of Fitchburg (depending on burn location), and notifies officials, including the UWPD, before every burn.

These safety precautions are recommended for anyone in the vicinity of a prescribed fire:

  • Always stay off trails and firebreaks that are closed for a prescribed fire, and do not go off trail
  • Keep a safe distance from smoke, flames and heat
  • Do not interfere with or obstruct movement of crew, equipment and vehicles
  • Do not distract a prescribed fire crew

Wisconsin Prescribed Fire Resources