Prescribed Fires and Smoke

Fire Danger & Management | Prescribed Fire & Smoke

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Introduction to Prescribed Fire

In northern Arizona, we love our forests. Our forests are the setting for various recreational activities and provide the backdrop for our community. But, while it may not always be evident, our forests are sick. Many parts of our forest are susceptible to insect infestations, disease, and catastrophic wildfire. It is because of our love of our forest, and our desire to improve its health that we prescribe fire. Much like a doctor prescribes medication to a sick patient, Forest Service managers sometimes prescribe fire to improve the health of our local forests.

Prescribed burns are termed such because they are conducted within a “prescription” that defines the fuel moisture levels, air temperatures, wind conditions, and relative humidity levels that are appropriate for each project. Ecological Restoration Institute has created a white paper on prescribed burns and also a quick fact sheet on how prescribed burns are implemented, which are both very useful in understanding what goes into planning and executing a prescribed burn. Please also take a moment to view this short 2-minute video which explains the Misconceptions and Benefits of Fire.

All prescribed fire activity is dependent on personnel availability, fuel conditions, weather – including ventilation conditions, and approval from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

Fire managers strive to minimize smoke impacts to the community by working closely with ADEQ, partners in the Ponderosa Fire Advisory Council, as well as neighboring forests to monitor air quality. Tactics to keep smoke impacts as minimal as possible include canceling approved burns when conditions aren’t favorable, finding alternative uses for the debris in slash piles, timing daytime ignitions to allow the majority of smoke time to disperse prior to settling overnight, and burning larger sections at a time to ultimately limit the number of days smoke is in the air.

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Prescribed Burns 2023

 

Finding Prescribed Fire Information

Each National Forest is assigned required annual acreage amounts for prescribed burns from their respective Regional Office, which receives its regional annual acreage amount goal from Washington D.C.  Ultimately, target acres for prescribed burns are based on the amount of funds Congress allocates toward the Hazardous Fuels Reduction program, which trickles down across the nation to National Forests. This is an oversimplified explanation, but how it basically works.

We do not have the option of declining the assigned target acres given to us by our Regional Office. Each year, the Coconino National Forest is assigned approximately 35,000 acres for a prescribed burn target. 

Since each National Forest is given targets to reach each year, and since burns can only occur on days that are favorable (meaning, safe to do so with the right conditions), the National Forests in the southwest often burn on the same days, as there are only a certain amount of windows available each year to burn. This is where ADEQ comes in. ADEQ is the state agency that looks at all of the burn plans across the state, considers smoke impacts, monitors the air quality, and allows or rejects plans for prescribed burns.

Unfortunately, target acres for prescribed burns for each National Forest have increased over the years because catastrophic wildfires have increased and these prescribed burns help reduce the risk of that happening and burning down communities. 

When burn season begins, approved projects and their technical locations are posted daily to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality approval site. The Coconino's approved burns will have a "Burn #" beginning with "COF."  Use the Coconino NF Map to find the specific Township/Range/Section listed on the approval site. Additionally, we post information about upcoming prescribed burns on our social media accounts:

Local Ranger Stations can also offer answers to many questions about each district:

  • Flagstaff Ranger District (Flagstaff) 928-526-0866
  • Red Rock Ranger District (Sedona) 928-203-2900
  • Mogollon Rim Ranger District (Happy Jack) 928-477-2255‚Äč

File a complaint with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ): ADEQ provides final approval for prescribed burn activity throughout the state. If you are affected by smoke from a prescribed burn in the state of Arizona, you can file a formal complaint.

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Benefits of Prescribed Burning

  • Reduces forest fuel build-up by naturally thinning overcrowded forests. Thinned forests can recover faster and are more resistant to insect and disease attacks. Currently, many of the mature forests are overcrowded, resulting in a lack of vigor and health.
  • Dead wood, overcrowded, unhealthy trees, and thick layers of pine needles can all contribute to catastrophic wildfires including crown fires. Prescribed burns help get rid of these fuels.
  • Prepares the land for new growth and helps certain plants/trees germinate. When excess vegetation or needle layers are burned off, nitrogen and other nutrients are released into the soil and become available for new plants to grow.
  • Many native plant and forest communities have adapted to fire for their germination and growth. Seed contact with soil (such as that exposed by a fire) is necessary for some species to naturally regenerate.
  • Fire provides diverse habitat for plants and animals. Grazing wildlife such as Elk and Deer benefit from new growth as shrubs produce edible leaves when re-sprouting after a fire.
  • Prescribed burns help protect communities from severe wildfires by creating buffer zones and areas where an out-of-control wildfire might be stopped due to lack of forest fuels
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Broadcast burning means firefighters use a method of drip torches and walk across the landscape to broadcast the fire across large swaths of land. The other method of burning is pile burning, which means burning forest slash that has been piled up from mechanical or hand-thinning projects. Pile burns are done during winter months when snow is on the ground so the heat can be managed safely.

Initial entry burns mean there is no documented history of prescribed or other wildfire in the area, meaning there is a significant amount of hazardous forest fuels in the area. Initial entry burns produce much thicker smoke than maintenance burns.

Maintenance burns means fire has moved across that particular landscape within at least the last decade. Maintenance burns typically produce less smoke than broadcast burns due to the lesser amount of forest fuels and are used to “maintain” an area, so it does not accumulate large amounts of hazardous forest fuels.

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Additional Resources and Information

Watch the Keeping Fire on the Ground: Resource Specialist Perspectives video about the importance of wildland fire in our northern Arizona forests.

Coconino National Forest Information

General Information

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