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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Prescribed Burning Guidelines
in the Northern Great Plains

Smoke management

Smoke can sometimes be an undesirable element of a prescription burn. Every grassland fire emits smoke, and the fire boss is responsible and liable for any damages or air pollution violations due to smoke.

Smoke can be highly visible and attract unnecessary attention. Smoke can also reduce visibility on highways and roads. We have spotted smoke from a 32-ha (80-acre) grass fire at a distance of 64 km (40 miles).

Smoke management is designed before the first match is struck. During preburn planning, use your knowledge of fuel moisture conditions, amounts of dead plant materials present (litter), and wind direction and speed.

General considerations for smoke management on any fire are:

  1. Moist fuels produce more smoke than dry fuels
  2. Head fires produce more smoke than slower backing fires which give more complete consumption of fuel
  3. Smoke problems at night are more hazardous than during daylight
  4. Stable air mass conditions can cause air inversions which restrict smoke convection and dispersion. Unstable atmospheric conditions are usually better for smoke management
Critical considerations for smoke management include the following:

  1. A 360-degree check for possible restrictive air space (e.g. wilderness areas or national parks)
  2. A 360-degree check for sensitive areas such as residences, highways, golf courses, airports, and public institutions
  3. A check of sensitive areas downwind of firebreak and fire containment locations, and of the wind direction and smoke flow necessary to reach these locations
  4. A check of the sensitive areas downwind and 45 degrees either side of initial wind direction. This will allow compensation for a wind shift which can cause a change in smoke flow
  5. An estimate of the length of time necessary to conduct the burn, plus a margin of error for wind shift or loss of speed, to predict smoke duration
  6. Notification of nearby residents, local fire departments, and if necessary, publicity about the burn through news media before burning.
Proper preburn planning and surveillance of restrictive and sensitive areas will minimize smoke management problems and adverse public reaction.

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