Barriers to Prescribed Fire

Although many people agree that prescribed fire serves an important role in the Great Plains, there are fewer fires than most ecologists think there should be. Their diagnosis is based on a variety of factors relating to the health, status, and function of grassland communities as well as potential wildfire risks.

There are many barriers to using fire, but many people are working to alleviate those barriers. Extension and non-governmental organizations provide a variety of training, planning, and operational support in the region. The GPE has heard from burn associations around the region that liability and insurance issues are a key barrier to prescribed fire.

Recently, a new fire policy carrier stepped forward to provide insurance coverage that may reduce the concerns about risk for landowners. This new policy joins a limited number of options available for landowners. Yet, we have not seen a rush to sign up for the new insurance option.

Perhaps there are some other barriers that indeed trump insurance concerns. Could it be a lack of comfort with conducting fire operations? There are a plethora of training opportunities annually around the region and a growing number of landowner support groups and extension opportunities. Perhaps there are social barriers. Acceptance by neighbors and peer groups can be an important influence. Our communications kit was aimed at improving fire communications.

Perhaps having the necessary equipment is a barrier. The growing number of landowner burn associations has helped landowners acquire and share equipment to alleviate this barrier. Landowners can also loan equipment from state agencies and others. Burn associations in the region have even received grants for equipment.

Could the primary barrier be fear or understanding of fire? Even though for us in the field, fire is second nature, the majority of citizens in the region may not be aware of the importance of fire on the land. Fire is a little scary (sometimes very scary), even if you work with it frequently. There is a certain amount of healthy fear when it comes to fire. You won’t find a burn boss in the business that doesn’t feel at least a little anxiety prior to each and every burn, experienced or not. Many are working to educate people across the region about the benefits and hazards of fire.

Air quality concerns are increasing and a real barrier to even seasoned prescribed fire managers. Smoke from the Great Plains has been tracked all the way to the east coast. Urban areas monitor air quality to protect their citizens. Although smoke is usually short lived, cities want to alert and protect their vulnerable citizens from smoke. There is an important tradeoff between air quality in the short-term and long-term maintain ecosystem services through fire. The website KSFire.org helps burners in the Flint Hills know when they will be contributing to air quality problems before they ignite. National weather service also has tools such as ventilation rates, mixing heights, and dispersion indices to help burners make decisions.

There may be additional barriers that I’ve not considered here. A new research article found that budgets and staffing are the key impediments for agencies, while in the private landscape liability concerns dominate. Social science research that helps us understand the barriers and ways to mitigate them are needed to help us make progress on this important issue. The GPE would like to learn what your barriers to burning are. Comment here or email us at GPFireScience@missouristate.edu.