Prescribed Fire and Other Heated Language
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service firefighters regularly reduce wildfire risk and help restore wildlife habitat by conducting prescribed burns at national wildlife refuges. When they do so, they use technical talk that can be confusing. Here’s a primer of some commonly used terms:
Wildland fire: Any fire burning in a natural area, either a prescribed fire or a wildfire.
Prescribed fire: A planned wildland fire started and managed by professional firefighters in accordance with an approved prescribed fire burn plan, which specifies allowable conditions for burning and desired results. Also called a prescribed burn. Sometimes called a controlled burn.
Drip torch: Hand-held steel canister with a spout commonly used by wildland fire specialists to ignite prescribed fires or fight wildfires by dispensing flaming liquid – a mixture of diesel and gasoline – onto burnable vegetation. Related tools include: flame thrower (aka Terra Torch ®), usually mounted on a truck, trailer or off-road vehicle, used to shoot a horizontal stream of gelled gasoline; helitorch, hung from or mounted on a helicopter to disperse ignited lumps of gelled gasoline from the air; and ping pong balls, plastic balls filled with flammable chemicals that are dropped from a helicopter and ignite after hitting the ground.
Fuels: Live or dead vegetation – such as grass, overgrown brush, trees or logging slash – that could fuel a wildfire. Also called hazardous fuels when referring to conditions creating high risk of wildfire.
Fuels management: The practice of reducing wildfire risk through planned and approved actions to thin or remove vegetation that could fuel a wildfire. Fuels treatments can also improve wildlife habitat and commonly are done on a rotating schedule using prescribed fire, mechanical removal with chainsaws or heavy equipment, and chemical treatment with herbicides. Also called hazardous fuels reduction when referring to conditions creating high risk of wildfire.
Control line: An inclusive term for constructed or natural barriers used to stop the spread of a wildland fire. The part scraped or dug to mineral soil is called a fireline.
Spot fire: A new fire start ignited outside of control lines by blowing or falling embers from the main fire. Wildland firefighters must routinely monitor for spot fires, which can occur miles away, depending on weather conditions.
Smoke management: Decisions and actions taken by wildland firefighters, land managers and air quality regulators, especially during prescribed fire, to minimize or divert smoke from settling into populated or high-traffic areas. This prevents health and safety hazards, such as poor air quality or impaired visibility. Managing smoke is more difficult during wildfires. It sometimes involves scientific monitoring of particulate levels and public notice of air quality.
Cohesive Strategy: An initiative of the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture in which governmental and non-governmental organizations collaborate to manage wildland fire by responding to individual wildfires, supporting fire-adapted communities, and restoring and maintaining fire-resilient lands. It is officially known as the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.
Photo: USFWS Fire Crew working on wildfire on McFaddin NWR, 2013
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