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Prescribed Burning Guidelines
in the Northern Great Plains


DISCLAIMER: Several older photographs used in this publication show burn crews without appropriate personal protective equipment. Current Department of Interior (DOI) requirements include Nomex shirts and pants, leather gloves and boots, hardhat, goggles, and fire shelter. Requirements may be found in the DOI Departmental Manual, chapter 910, DM 1; in the USFWS Service Refuge Manual, chapter 6RM 7.8c; in the USFWS Service Manual, part 241 FW 7.1; or in the USFWS Fire Management Preparedness and Planning Handbook, FWS 621 section 1.5.3.
The safety of the people on your burn is your highest priority. Safety is promoted through training, removal of hazards, and through provisions for personal protective equipment and devices.

Be as careful on a small fire as on a large one; the "small" may indeed grow to "large." Besides the fire crew, plan for the safety of any other persons in the vicinity.

Many more people are injured than are killed by fires. Most fatalities occur during times of extreme fire danger or during high risk burns when people experience heat stress or are overcome by smoke inhalation.

Physical fitness standard

The "Step Test" is a commonly used standard to rate the fitness of each crew member before going out to the fire. The step test is performed by stepping on and off a bench (40 cm, or 15 3/4 inches, high for men and 33 cm, or 13 inches, high for women) at the rate of 90 steps/min for 5 minutes. At the end of the 5 minutes of stepping, wait 15 seconds and then take a pulse reading for 15 seconds. The score is determined from a physical fitness calculator (U.S. Forest Service). Fire crew members should have a score of 45 or higher. There is also an alternate test of running 2.4 km (1.5 miles) in a prescribed time.

Occasionally, logistics and staffing result in some crew members not being physically fit. Common sense must prevail; less fit, usually older, weaker, and heavier people should be assigned to the less strenuous fire jobs and away from dense smoke and high heat stress situations. This is usually easy to plan because each fire job requires different physical effort, e.g. truck driving vs. using a flapper on the fireline.

Safety clothing

All people actively involved in conducting a prescription fire should wear safety clothing that, at minimum, includes:

  1. hightop, 20-cm (8-inch) or higher leather boots or work shoes with non-slip soles and leather laces. Steel-toed shoes should not be worn for fire duty.
  2. cotton or wool socks
  3. Nomex slacks or pants, loose fitting, with the hems lower than the shoe tops
  4. Nomex long-sleeved loose fitting shirts
  5. leather gloves
  6. hard hat
  7. leather belt and/or natural fiber suspenders
  8. belt pack case with an aluminum emergency fire shelter
  9. cotton undergarments
  10. goggles
Additional safety clothing or equipment may be required on specific jobs or situations. These might include:

          AM radio			flashlight
          canteen			wire cutters
          compass			first aid kit
          flares			extra batteries
          lip balm			ear plugs
          map				handkerchief
          knife				ear muffs
          food				face shield
          matches			crash helmet

Specific instructions should be given to not wear clothing fabrics that will melt or flame easily. These include nylon, polyesters, and plastics.

Life-threatening situations

Serious fire encounters should be avoided at all costs; materials can be replaced whereas life is lost forever.

Some obvious indicators of potentially hazardous conditions are (1) flame lengths exceeding 1.2 m (4 ft), (2) fire brands or spot fires occurring ahead of the main fire front, (3) smoldering fires over a large area, (4) a sudden increase in wind speed or a large change in wind direction, and (5) thick, massive smoke held close to the ground for lengthy periods during darkness.

Unless you are trying to help another person, these are times to use your alternate escape route. When in doubt, get out!

Equipment purchase and repair

Soon after the last fire of the burning season, repair and purchase equipment and start preparing for the next year's burning season. Fire work is hard on equipment. Purchase becomes a necessity when old equipment or clothing wears out or becomes unsafe and when new and better items become available.

Every item should be checked in a standardized annual evaluation process. When it comes to personal safety, no repair is too menial or too large, from the replacement of a button to an engine overhaul.

Make daily checks of all equipment after the completion of each burn. This may require a maintenance schedule different than the usual 8-hour daylight workday.


Publicity is necessary for every prescription fire. The local fire department chief and any neighbors within a reasonable distance of the burn unit should be notified in advance of a burn as well as on the burn day. Some localities may also have township or state pollution officers who should be contacted.

If necessary, provide all of these people with your name, office telephone number, agency affiliation, and when and how long the burn will probably take. If at the last moment the burn is canceled, notify these same people.

Each burn crew member should know the names and phone numbers of the neighbors, the fire department, and nearest medical facility.

The general public should be informed of your plans and result of your use of fire as a grassland management tool. This is often done locally with articles in newspapers or magazines, or with illustrated slide talks or field tours before and after a fire.

Provide the press with a fact sheet of pertinent burn details for accurate reporting. Journalists are not required to show you advances of their stories, but ask anyway, so you can have input into the screening or editing of the final products.

If your publicity is to be aired on national media, you should pursue the necessary clearance with your superiors before you act or publicize.

Equipment check and testing

Crew members should check over all equipment necessary for their job. We recommend that all motorized vehicles and equipment be operated until the engine is warmed up, then be turned off and restarted again under warm-motor temperatures .

All pumper units should be tested for spray pressure and spray patterns at all manual nozzle settings. All equipment and auxiliary containers should be checked for proper levels of fuel, oil, water, or other chemicals. Two way radios and other communication equipment should be tested for working conditions and signal distance.

As an additional precaution, the fire boss may want to poll crew members about their own personal attitude and health status prior to setting the fire.

Last-minute instructions

The fire boss, and only the fire boss, should give the last-minute instructions to the crew, but not until all of the preburn plans, publicity, preparations, weather checks, and equipment testing have been completed and meet fire boss approval.

At final instructions, the fire boss should go over the prescription plan for setting fire, containment actions, escape routes, plans for possible wild or escaped fire situations, and final reconnaissance and mop-up after the fire.

These instructions should be clear and understood by all crew members and they should include the chain of command and the location and job obligations of each crew member before, during, and after the fire.

A pre-burn environmental assessment (Appendix D) of each burn unit should be done a few days prior to the burn by a biologist experienced with fire. A biologist who is lacking in fire experience should consult another person with prescription fire experience. As a minimum, environmental assessments should include:

  1. Estimating the amount and kind of fuels present.
  2. Listing the growth and phenological stage of some key plant species.
  3. Noting the seasonal activities of key faunal species (e.g. peak nesting period of ducks).
  4. Surveying the condition of natural and artificial fire containment barriers and the proposed fire unit boundaries.
  5. Rechecking the obvious sensitive areas or physical constraints.
  6. Taking pre-burn photographs and marking locations.
  7. Visually verifying the correctness of the main habitats of the base work map.
  8. Noting past precipitation amounts and dates.
  9. Noting any unnatural or abnormal conditions, e.g., lodged fuels that might affect fire behavior.
  10. Noting any high risk environmental areas that might need to be excluded from the burn area.
The pre-burn environmental assessments should be made available to the fire boss as soon as possible.

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