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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Prescribed Burning Guidelines
in the Northern Great Plains

Permit to burn

For most of the grassland area in the NGP, prescription burning is considered the same as open agricultural burning. With few exceptions, grassland burning variances and permits can be obtained on an annual basis from the appropriate state regulatory department.

Many public agencies, e.g. the USFWS, also require line administrative approval of annual fire management plans at the project leader level and at the regional office level before burning.

Special permits may be required if burning is to be done within or adjacent to national parks or wilderness areas. Both of these areas require permits for Class I fire and smoke guidelines as stipulated under the provisions set by the Clean Air Act of 1970 and as regulated by the EPA through state air quality boards. Class I fires must meet an air particulate criteria standard based on particulate emissions.

Burn site constraints

Each burn site has its own set of constraints and sensitive issues. Final inventory and evaluation of the total set of constraints for each proposed burn site will help you decide if the site should be kept in your overall annual burn plan (see appendices E and F).

We recommend that all potential burn sites be arranged sequentially, starting with those sites with the least constraints. Constraints can be economical (high cost per unit of burn area); operational (poor access or repeatedly a high-risk fire problem area); environmental (highly erodible soil or high risk of air pollution); administrative (site includes a wilderness area or endangered species); regulatory (a moratorium on open burning); and conflictive (adverse publicity, multiple use area for both domestic livestock and wildlife production, or research versus management objectives).

Examples of sensitive issues or constraints include smoke problems in relation to residential areas, airports, highways, and roads; the presence of electrical poles and wires; adjacent farm crops or livestock; coal or oil deposits; presence of endangered biota or nesting and fawning areas; sensitive neighbors; or poor access for backup fire fighting or emergency medical equipment.

Deal with many of the constraints and sensitive issues well in advance of the actual time to burn. Leave time to recheck such things as the presence of livestock within a few hours or days of the burn. We recommend that a standard checkoff list be used on each grassland fire.

Wilderness fires

The use of prescription fire in wilderness areas is still questionable. Wilderness as a term is a cultural value and not necessarily a natural value.

Pyne (1982) reported that not until the 1960s was it deemed more important to introduce fire than to suppress it in most wilderness areas. A fundamental change in philosophy held that, through prescribed fire, the "goodness" of the wilderness and its natural processes can be distributed to other landscapes.

There are only three grassland wilderness areas in the NGP: C.M. Russell NWR in Montana and Chase Lake and Lostwood wilderness areas in North Dakota, all of which are a part of the national wildlife refuge system administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to the USFWS refuge manual, wildfires in wilderness areas will be aggressively suppressed unless there is a previously approved plan for modified action or prescribed fire. Variances may be granted for either greater or less than standard suppression.

Obtain proper authorization before burning wilderness areas.

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