Properly Portraying the Power of Prescribed Fire

At a recent Nebraska conference, Shelly Kelly of the Sandhills Task Force made a point worth some serious consideration.  She told a roomful of wildlife biologists that if they want reluctant ranchers to seriously consider using prescribed fire, using photos of big scary flames in presentations and social media posts is probably counterproductive.  Instead, Shelly suggested sharing more photos of fires that are clearly under control, with people calmly working around them.  Even better, she suggested, we should share photos of green grass beneath the skeletons of dead invasive trees, showing the positive results that follow fire.

We got our first prescribed fires of 2018 done last week.  This photo captures some of the 5 minutes or so of intense fire following about an hour of boring backing fire lines on one of those burns.

I appreciate her point.  Most of my favorite prescribed fire photos are the ones I took during the big head (wind-driven) fire at the end of a burn – when the flames are high and there’s lots of color and action.  Visually, those images are certainly more powerful than photos of a small fire backing slowly into the wind during the early stages of a burn.  However, it’s important to remember that “powerful” might not be the attribute to lead with when talking to a skeptical audience that fears the potential negative consequences of fire.

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think we need to stop showing people powerful images of fire – we should just try to provide appropriate context for those images.  After all, the power of fire is why it’s so valuable as a management tool.  It can take some pretty tall flames and a lot of heat to kill eastern red cedar trees, for example.

Context is important.  Posting an image of huge flames and a towering smoke column on Instagram or Facebook with a short caption like, “Woo Hoo!!  We had a great burn today!!” will probably get lots of likes from experienced fire folks.  However, someone unfamiliar with prescribed fire might look at that same image and assume it was taken by a reckless pyromaniac who was endangering the public and him/herself.  As a result, that person might be much harder to turn into a prescribed fire supporter.

Expounding a little in an image caption can help quite a bit.  Something like, “Here’s an image from the finale of today’s controlled burn.  After two hours of slowly burning out a boundary around our fire unit, we were able to send this hot fire through the prairie to kill lots of invasive trees before it ran into what we’d burned earlier and put itself out.”  Or whatever – you get the idea.

We start each burn with a small test fire in the downwind corner . That gives us a chance to see how the fire and smoke are going to behave before we commit to the whole enchilada. If we don’t like what we see, we can easily shut down and wait for a better day.  Last week, we had dry conditions, but wind speeds were low enough that we could burn safely.

Even better, we should probably share broader series of images showing the entire process of the fire, including the boring backing fire that sets the stage for that big finish.  Photos of a nice straight firebreak, with black on one side and unburned grass on the other, can help drive home how careful, competent, and effective we are.  After posting a few shots of people in yellow suits laying down lines of small flame inside neat boundaries, it’s probably ok to slide in a couple photos of flaming infernos and torching cedar trees.  It might be smart to include at least one more photo after those flashy shots, though, showing that everything turned out well in the end…

In this photo, we’re laying down a band of water along the edge of a mowed strip surrounding our burn unit, and Olivia is lighting the grass just upwind of that wet and mowed line.

With both a wet line and a mowed firebreak to catch it, Alex lit a line of fire that we allowed to back into the wind. Several vehicles with water followed behind to make sure the flames stayed inside the unit.

Eventually the backing fire created a wind band of black that acted as a catcher’s mitt when the big fire ran into it later.

Once the black lines were prepared, we ignited the upwind portion of the unit and allowed fire to roar through the unit until it hit the black and was extinguished.

These lines of fire are safely inside wide bands of black that have already burned.

Olivia watches the last of the smoke dissipate as the fire burns itself out.

I’ll try to follow my own advice about fire communications in the future, and you can remind me when I forget.  It’s absolutely appropriate to celebrate the power (and let’s face it, the beauty too) of fire by taking and sharing photos.  However, we should also celebrate and share the care and strategy that go into making those powerful fires safe and effective.

Be safe out there.


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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12 Responses to Properly Portraying the Power of Prescribed Fire

  1. Patrick says:

    Excellent points. I do think there is reluctance based on the risk of wildfire, but don’t you think there is a reluctance based on getting enough folks to manage a burn too? And someone to have your back when/if you need to call for backup? Just curious how many folks you think it takes to properly manage a burn in the 250-500 acre range, which would presumably be close to the size of a unit on a large ranch right?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hard to put a number on something like that. It’s dependent upon how much line there is to patrol, but also on the conditions. Heavier grass fuel and more aggressive burning conditions would require more people, for example. You’d probably want 8-12 people or more on a 500 acre burn.

      • James C. Trager says:

        It’s also dependent on preparation beforehand, and equipment and knowhow to use it at the fire. Maybe that’s the stuff of another blog, but possibly could be outlined here.

  2. Paula Matile says:

    Thank you Chris. Good post. This is sound advice for agency prescribed burning education outreach, marketing and getting prescribed fire on private land. In early days, I would capture people and process, but in later years photo taking decreased to those ‘wow’ moments.

  3. S Mary Baird says:

    Well done blog for the persons like us who haven’t experienced a big fire. Thanks.

  4. Dick Kahoe says:

    You make a good point about the benefit of using a series of images to show the process. Your posting reminds me of how effective communication about the task is often as important as the task itself. The Turkeyfoot Prairie prescribed burn 2017 video on YouTube illustrates the neat boundaries of the burn, people working calmly, and the final results–with soft music as well.

    Slide shows and videos are one way to add context and process to the content.

  5. James McGee says:

    Where I live the conversation about showing the steps necessary to safely conducting a prescribed burn probably would not make much of a difference. You can do public service announcement, put up signs, and even knock on all the neighbor’s doors. However, you can’t make people pay attention or listen. When the column of black smoke rises like a mushroom cloud from a marsh burn then people start PAYING ATTENTION. No matter how much educating you’ve done people are still going to call the fire department saying an airplane has crashed. Someone is also going to try to take pictures or video of the fire while driving their car and end up rear ending the person’s car in front who slowed down to look. Despite the fact you called the fire department and told them the plans, sometimes they are still going to show up and want to put out the fire. Dealing with such things is just a typical day for my county’s prescribed burn crews.

    • Patrick says:

      James, sad but probably true. Although I think more folks are starting to accept the value of prescribed burns. Just have to keep believing in the merit of the work you are doing for the voiceless things you are trying to protect and serve.

      • James McGee says:

        In a county of 5+ million people there is always going to be someone who panics when they see a prescribed burn. The burns still get done. County government supersedes local fire departments although they often argue with our prescribed burn crews about this point of law. It just sometimes makes for a longer day for the burn crews.

  6. jeff summerfield says:

    this is a wonderful posting what a great idea and tool thank you thank you thank you……

  7. We used to help a friend burn his prairie near Lincoln many years ago. I don’t think he had a huge area. It was quite the affair, with families, including children. I don’t remember now what preparations he took before the day we did it. We had a potluck near the site.

    I love your photos and and agree with the need to show different steps in the process.


    Neat. I just read “Fire on the Rim” by Pyne. Good anecdotes on fire suppression in GCNP in the 70s and the difficulties resulting from reversal of policy in the 80s. Still not sure, definition of a “fedco”.


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