Smokey Bear may have infamously said “only you can prevent forest fires,” but not all fires are created equally. Wildfires, wildland fires, and forest fires—these terms are often used with the same connotations of danger and destruction. But “fire” doesn’t always have to be a bad word. Prescribed fires have much to offer both people and nature, like revitalizing and enhancing natural ecosystems while preventing catastrophic wildfires. In fact, many of the landscapes that we depend upon, live within, and use for recreation were formed by fire. Let’s fan the flames of thought around prescribed fire and explore the most crucial land management and stewardship tool we use for conservation.
Basics and Beyond
Prescribed fire refers to planned burns conducted by trained fire practitioners to manage and restore our lands and waters. Unlike wildfires—unplanned fires caused by lightning and other natural causes, or accidental fires ignited by humans—prescribed burns take place under specific weather conditions, require significant preparation, and follow explicit safety protocols for both the public and fire practitioners.
Where does the term prescription fit into all of this? Burn plans identify, or prescribe, the best conditions under which certain vegetation will burn while still operating in manageable circumstances. These burn plans consider factors like temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation, and conditions for the dispersal of smoke. Fire practitioners then compare conditions on the ground to those outlined in burn plans before deciding whether to ignite a burn on a given day. While some amount of smoke is unavoidable, fire practitioners go to great lengths to plan and limit smoke impacts to nearby communities.
In Texas, we have records of burns on our properties dating back to 1975, but the first burn done by Texas Chapter fire practitioners took place in 1978 at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary. Since then, we’ve come a long way in how we use fire to help the natural world thrive.
Prescribed fire is perhaps the most important land management tool we use to maintain the health and diversity of our natural landscapes—just as they were once inherently managed by nature. Here are some of the many benefits that prescribed fire provides:
- Reduces fuels for wildfires: Regularly applied prescribed fire can reduce the intensity of an unplanned fire by removing leaf litter and other plant material that serves as a source of fuel.
- Reduces invasive species and prevents plant encroachment: Many invasive or non-native species are less fire-tolerant than native species. Prescribed fire removes these species, giving native plants a competitive advantage.
- Supports biodiversity: Healthy environments provide food and cover for wildlife and game. Prescribed fire helps maintain habitat for wildlife, including endangered species, and improves forage for cattle and other large herbivores.
- Revitalizes soil nutrients: When plant material is burned during a prescribed fire, it returns nutrients to the soil, enriching it; plant material could otherwise take years to decompose and be recycled into the soil.
- Promotes diverse plant growth: Fire can be used to stimulate more diverse plant growth, which often benefits butterflies, moths, and other pollinators—the foundation of our natural communities.
Shaped by Fire: Fire-Adapted Communities
Almost all the continent’s landscapes are fire-adapted, meaning they need fire at regular intervals for health and resilience. Fire has long been used by Indigenous peoples in North America to steward and manage land. Yet today, our relationship with fire has changed. Due to an overemphasis on putting fires out as quickly as possible, and an underemphasis on lighting safe, planned burns, fire has largely been excluded from the places that need it most. For the past 100 years, a federal policy of fire suppression has led to the exclusion of flames from fire-adapted landscapes in the U.S. At the same time, burning by Indigenous peoples was criminalized by federal and state governments and all but eliminated.
As a result, many of the areas we depend on for clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation are increasingly unhealthy. A lack of beneficial fire, combined with climate change and drought, is also making many places more vulnerable to severe wildfires. TNC and our partners seek a better future where natural areas are sustained by and ready for fire—one where communities are empowered and prepared to live with fire.
By working with government agencies, Indigenous peoples and other partners, TNC is bringing the role of fire in nature back into balance and helping communities prepare for, manage and live safely with fire. And across the Lone Star State, our nature preserves are playing a critical role in demonstrating the value of fire.
Once stretching from Texas to Virginia, longleaf pine-covered more than 90 million acres. But today, only 5% of this natural system remains, following decades of development and fire suppression. TNC’s Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary is the cornerstone of the Texas Forest Program and our longleaf pine restoration efforts. As a fire-dependent species, longleaf pine forests need frequent, low-intensity fires to grow and thrive. At Sandylands—and throughout Texas—prescribed fire mimics the natural fires that shaped the longleaf landscape, helping promote the growth of native species and reducing competition from other types of trees. As one of TNC’s Resilient and Connected Landscapes, we’re reconnecting longleaf forests across the U.S. to create corridors for biodiversity to move through and adapt to as our climate changes.
Quote: Shawn Benedict
Grasslands and Prairies
From the Blackland prairies of North Texas to the coastal prairies along the Gulf, fire is an essential part of managing healthy grasslands. At TNC Texas’ Clymer Meadow Preserve, Mad Island Marsh Preserve, Nash Prairie Preserve, and Refugio Goliad Prairie Project, prescribed fire is helping these protected lands prosper. Historically, naturally occurring, frequent fires played a significant role in molding the ecology of the Great Plains and Coastal Prairies. Today our remnant short grass and tallgrass prairies require prescribed fire as a type of managed disturbance to remove past-year’s growth, prevent encroachment from shrubs and trees, spread seeds, and return nutrients to the soil.
How We Burn
There are three main types of burning used for prescribed fire activities in Texas:
- Pile burning involves creating piles of hand or machine-cut vegetation. The piles are given time to dry out and then lit when weather conditions are right to prevent damage to surrounding vegetation and to keep the fire contained to the pile.
- Understory burning comprises igniting a low to moderate intensity fire under a forested area to reduce fuels like grasses, shrubs, leaf litter, fallen needles and small trees. In preparation for an understory burn, thinning or pile burning is used to remove fuel sources that could allow flames to climb from the understory to the canopy. This type of prescribed fire helps restore native plant species and improves the overall health and resiliency of forest stands.
- Somewhat similar to understory burning, broadcast burning generally takes place in grasslands, shrublands and other areas where forest canopy is not present. This process creates a “mosaic” of burnt vegetation, promoting the regeneration of different, more diverse plant species.
Texas Fire Team
The Nature Conservancy’s standards for qualifying prescribed fire staff and volunteers exceed those dictated by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which is comprised of all the federal, and many state, fire management agencies. TNC remains the only non-governmental organization in the federal fire qualifications system.
Becoming a TNC Fire Practitioner:
- At a minimum, to be a fire practitioner, staff must complete standard coursework and pass a physical fitness capacity test. Annual “refreshers” and new fitness tests are required each year.
- To move from a basic fire practitioner into a more advanced position, such as an Engine Boss, staff must complete additional coursework and satisfactorily perform a series of tasks specific to the position while serving as trainees on burns.
- To become a qualified Burn Boss, staff might spend a decade or more completing all the coursework and experiential training that’s required of this advanced position.
The Texas Chapter is a leader in meeting these standards. Our fire program has contributed significantly to TNC's North America Region prescribed fire initiatives, having participated in several firefighter exchange programs across the nation and provided training to other TNC fire programs along with federal and state firefighters.
In addition to implementing prescribed fire on our preserves and properties, TNC partners with private landowners and organizations throughout the state to conduct prescribed burns on public and private lands, share resources and training methods, and assist in battling dangerous wildfires.
Our fire personnel:
- Frequently lead workshops and demonstration burns to share the benefits of prescribed fire with landowners.
- Partner with the National Park Service, Texas Forest Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Coastal Bend Burn Cooperative, municipalities such as the City of Austin, local volunteer fire departments and private landowners across the state.
- Conduct prescribed burns on thousands of acres of Texas land through these invaluable partnerships.
The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas
For millennia, North America’s Indigenous peoples have lived alongside and used fire to steward the land. But government regulations and compulsory fire suppression practices, along with the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their lands, all but erased these traditional burns. Through a grant from the USDA Forest Service, TNC Texas and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas are assisting one another in putting fire on the ground and stewarding the native landscape. Here, the pineywoods once stretched as far as the eye could see, an unbroken expanse of pencil-thin trunks and needled canopy. When the Alabama and the Coushatta tribes migrated from Alabama to Texas in the late 1700s, the longleaf pine continued to be a critical part of the tribes’ way of life and culture—from weaving intricate baskets from pine needles to using its bark for medicinal purposes.
Today the longleaf remains just as essential, and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas seeks to restore nearly 400 acres of forest in the heart of the Big Thicket to support these traditions. But as a fire-dependent species, longleaf pines need regular burns to flourish. With support from the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network, TNC Texas staff and others established a partnership with the Alabama-Coushatta to implement longleaf restoration both on tribal and collaborator lands. TNC is also helping to provide training, equipment and gear to the tribe's Wildland Fire Management crew as part of this partnership. Together, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas and TNC hope to advance longleaf pine forest restoration initiatives in Southeast Texas, enhancing the overall health and ecological function of these natural communities.
Women in Fire
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused classes at The University of Oklahoma to be held online, Charity Battise was given the opportunity to join the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas' Wildland Fire Management crew while continuing her college coursework at home. As a tribal citizen, Charity has helped her community carry out controlled burns to steward and restore the longleaf pine—a vital part of the Tribe's traditions and way of life.
"It's fun walking through the woods all day. I didn't really know anything about fire before I started, but now I'm nearly a year into it, and it's exciting," says Charity. "I've lived around here near the reservation my whole life, and it's pretty cool to be a part of this. Between the mechanical treatments and fire, we've helped a lot by taking out competing vegetation for the longleaf."
Hired as a fire coordinator for the Alabama-Coushatta in December 2021, Charity is the only female member of the fire crew. While she plans to study social work at university, this experience has prompted her to consider pursuing forestry.
"It's a great job with lots of opportunities beyond even just fire, and it's been really good for me," she says.