Fire is a part of the southeast Ohio landscape and has been for thousands of years. Fires that occur in natural areas are called wildland fires. There are two types of wildland fires: wildfires and prescribed fires. Wildfires are unplanned fires burning in natural areas. Prescribed fires—sometimes called controlled fires—are planned fires intentionally set by professionals under controlled conditions.
Using Fire as a Stewardship Tool
Fire is used by land stewards around the world as a tool to keep ecosystems healthy. Many ecosystems benefit from, and even depend on, fires. Here in southeast Ohio, Wayne National Forest stewards use fire to help restore and sustain oak ecosystems.
Fire historically played an important role in many ecosystems across Ohio, from oak forests and woodlands, to tallgrass prairies, the oak openings, and beyond. Originally, these fires were those set and used by the American Indian Tribes living throughout this region as part of their cultural practices. Later in the 1800s, fires were set in natural areas by farmers and others. But during the early to mid-1900s, the regular use of fire was stopped across the state and many other places in America.
With the suppression of fire during the early and mid-1900s, many ecosystems that once benefited from low-intensity fires became unhealthy, threatening the many plants and animals that relied on these ecosystems. Today, land stewards are reintroducing fire back into these ecosystems to help keep them healthy and diverse!
Prescribed Burning & Oak Ecosystems Today
Figure 1. A low-intensity fire burns past an oak tree in a prescribed burn. USDA Forest Service Photo.
Federal, State, and private landowners around the State of Ohio use prescribed fire today in a variety of ecosystems. In southeast Ohio, prescribed burning is used to restore and sustain oak ecosystems. Oak ecosystems—such as oak forests—are ecosystems where oak trees collectively make up a higher proportion of the trees in the canopy than other types of trees. Oak ecosystems are biodiverse, crucial to the food web, and important to our society.
Fire plays an important role in oak ecosystems. Oaks can easily withstand low-intensity fires, and so fire helps tip the ecological scales in favor of oaks and other fire-tolerant trees. Fire also helps thin the forest understory, which allows more sunlight to reach young oak trees and other sun-loving plants.
Using prescribed fire in oak ecosystems is a long-term investment. A prescribed burn is not a “one and done” activity. Instead, a single area benefits most when repeatedly burned, such as on a 3-10 year cycle. Land stewardship is a gradual process and results often take decades to form. At the Wayne National Forest, all of the areas we treat with prescribed fire are on a regular schedule.
Planning & Preparing for a Prescribed Burn
Figure 2. A white oak tree after a prescribed burn. Note how the fire-tolerant oak tree is not injured.
All prescribed burns in the Wayne National Forest are conducted by professional wildland firefighters. Every prescribed burn involves months of planning and preparation before the fire actually happens.
Prescribed burn projects are first proposed and planned by experts and specialists in conjunction with public input. The proposed project is then environmentally analyzed using the National Environmental Policy Act process.
Once the project is approved, the area that is to be burned is divided into a series of “burn units.” Each burn unit then needs to be prepared. Firelines are first created around the burn unit. A fireline is path resembling a hiking trail where all the burnable woody material has been removed down to mineral soil. These firelines help contain the prescribed burn. Next, potential hazards near the fireline (such a dead trees) or inside the burn unit (such as a structure) are mitigated. This preparation ensures the day of the fire runs safely and smoothly.
At this point, wildland firefighters must wait for the right timing and weather conditions. Prescribed burns can only be conducted during certain times of the year and under certain weather conditions. Firefighters work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service to carefully monitor the weather forecast for “burn windows,” which are days that are forecasted to meet all timing and weather conditions necessary for a prescribed burn. If a burn window is identified, management will make the decision to schedule a prescribed burn on a specific day within the burn window. Typically, this decision is made 1-2 days in advance of the burn.
Conducting a Prescribed Burn
Figure 3. A fireline in action. Firelines are "breaks" in the flammable fuel on the forest floor. When flames hit a fireline, they run out of fuel to consume, making the flames burn out.
The day a prescribed burn is set to occur, wildland firefighters meet early to prepare supplies and stage supplies needed near the burn unit. Later in the morning, firefighters attend a briefing. During this briefing, the commanding firefighters overseeing the prescribed burn share the plans for the day, safety tips, communication information, and other important details. After the briefing, firefighters wait for the weather conditions to fall within the parameters specified by the burn plan. Once the weather parameters are met, a test fire is set. If the test fire burns successfully, the call is made to continue with the prescribed burn.
Figure 4. Wildland firefighters having a briefing the morning of a prescribed burn.
Once given the go ahead, wildland firefighters proceed with igniting the prescribed fire and holding it to the burn unit. Firefighters are generally broken into two groups. One group is responsible for setting the fire itself. These firefighters use tools such as drip torches, flare guns, and even helicopters or drones to set the fire. The other group is responsible for patrolling the fireline encircling the prescribed burn area to make sure the fire doesn’t jump the fireline (an event called a “spot fire”).
Typically, the edges of a prescribed burn unit are set on fire first. This allows the fire to begin burning inward into the burn unit, while also making the fireline wider (as fuels are consumed). Once the edges are ignited, firefighters work to ignite the fuels in the interior of the burn unit. This ignition process generally takes several hours to complete.
Figure 5. A wildland firefighter using a drip torch to ignite the fuels in a prescribed burn unit.
Generally, by late afternoon all ignitions are complete, and firefighters monitor the fire and the firelines during the evening. Increasing humidity throughout the evening and night limits further fire combustion and growth. These conditions often leads to the fire becoming extinguished overnight. By the next morning, only a few smoldering areas will remain.
At any point during this process, the prescribed burn can be called off. Such a decision can occur if weather conditions change, if a wildfire breaks out nearby that requires firefighters to be diverted, and other similar situations.
After the Prescribed Burn
After a prescribed burn, fire specialists then examine the area to see how it burned. This information is then used to adjust plans for the next time the area may burn—a process called “adaptive management.” Information is also collected to ensure the right ecological outcomes are happening.
Figure 6. Two wildland firefighters monitoring the progress of a prescribed burn in the Athens Ranger District after all ignitions were finished.
Wildfires do occur in southeast Ohio, with an average of 397 occurring each year. The typical southeast Ohio wildfire is small, with the vast majority smaller than 10 acres. However, because southeast Ohio is such a patchwork of natural and developed areas, all it takes is one wildfire in the right place at the right time to cause extensive damage.
Wildfires in Ohio can occur during any month of the year, but most occur during Ohio’s spring fire season (March – May) and fall fire season (October – November). Wildfires occur most often during these times because the humidity is low, the winds can be high, and the fuels in the forest are dry. With those conditions, all it takes is one spark for a fire to take off. Nearly every wildfire in southeast Ohio is started by people—whether accidentally or purposefully. The most common causes locally are campfires or debris/waste burning fires that escape control, fires illegally started by arsonists, and fires accidentally sparked by equipment and vehicles.
Responding to Wildfires
The lands in and around the Wayne National Forest are part of a “fire protection area.” If a wildfire occurs within the Wayne National Forest’s fire protection area, wildland firefighters from the national forest will respond and aid in suppression efforts. Wildfire suppression efforts are carried out in conjunction with Federal, State, and local fire departments.
Wildfire suppression tactics differ depending on the size of the fire, the intensity of the fire, the complexity of the land it’s burning on, and other factors. Small wildfires are often quickly contained using firelines to encircle the fire. Once contained, firefighters will work to put out the fire using water and handtools until the ground and fuels are cold to the touch. This is a process called “mop up.”
Larger wildfires—such as those that might be several dozen to several hundred acres in size—take longer to contain and are more complex. In some cases, backup wildland firefighters from surrounding areas may be called in to help. Generally, these larger wildfires are first contained using firelines. Once contained, firefighters work to “mop up” the surrounding edges of the wildfire. The interior of larger wildfires are then allowed to burn themselves out. Once that occurs, firefighters will monitor the area to ensure there are no pockets of fire still burning. If a pocket of fire is found, they will work to put it out.
Mid-Atlantic Coordination Center
Figure 7. The aftermath of a southeast Ohio wildfire.
When a wildfire or other incident occurs, information about the incident—such as location and size—has to be gathered from the person reporting the incident and then passed along to the appropriate authorities, who then need to respond to the incident. This important transfer of information is handled by dispatch centers. Reliable, efficient, and timely communication from dispatch centers can save resources, property, and lives. The Wayne National Forest relies on the Mid-Atlantic Coordination Center for dispatching to and communication about wildfires and other incidents.
The Mid-Atlantic Coordination Center is a central communication hub for wildfire and other incidents in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. This center coordinates the initial response to wildfires in national forest protection areas, manages expanded operations for member agencies, and supports prescribed burning programs.
Helping the National Wildfire Response
Figure 8. A map showing the lands covered by the Mid-Atlantic Coordination Center.
Every year, Wayne National Forest staff assist the National wildfire response. Some staff help out as wildland firefighters on a hand crew or fire engine, while others might help with logistics and communications, and others in administration, accounting, and management. This work is often dangerous and exhausting, and it involves being away from friends and family for weeks at a time. We are proud of our staff members who assist in the wildfire response and prevention efforts around the Nation. To learn more about the Forest Service’s national wildland fire program, visit the National Headquarters’ Wildland Fire page.
Figure 9. A photo taken by a Wayne National Forest employee while out on a fire assignment in Wyoming.