Prairie fire, MB (Photo by NCC)

Prairie fire, MB (Photo by NCC)

The role of prescribed fire as a land management tool

Prescribed Fire, Manitoba

Prescribed Fire, Manitoba

Fire is a natural part of ecosystem dynamics. It plays an important role in the development, maintenance and restoration of fire-dependant ecosystems and wildlife habitat. These ecosystems, where the vegetation becomes highly flammable during the dry season, provide optimal environmental conditions for fire. They also have favourable terrain that facilitates the wide and quick spread of fire when winds are present.

Prior to European settlement, and more recently urban and agricultural development, large wildfires ignited by lightning or humans swept through the landscape at varying frequency, intensity, severity, scale and season. Since then, decades of fire prevention, suppression, habitat loss and fragmentation have contributed to the decline of fire-dependent ecosystems. As a result, undesirable woody and exotic species have invaded these areas.

Throughout much of the 20th century, fire was viewed as a destructive force to be extinguished. However, fire-dependent ecosystems such as Manitoba's prairies, forests and wetlands rely on periodic fire effects on ecosystem composition, structure and function for long-term persistence. Fire also reduces hazardous vegetation fuel accumulation and the potential for catastrophic wildfires that could place people and property at risk.

The use and benefits of prescribed fire

The deliberate application of fire when used as a land management tool to achieve specific objectives is referred to as prescribed fire. Prescribed burns are conducted under controlled environmental conditions in a safe and professional manner designed to generate prescribed management outcomes.

A number of beneficial effects have been linked to fire, including:

  • preventing vegetation succession (e.g. prairie to forest)
  • increasing native species diversity
  • creating a mosaic of vegetation communities, habitat types and successional stages across the landscape
  • effective nutrient cycling and moisture
  • stimulating vegetation growth
  • increasing food production for wildlife
  • decreasing exotic and undesirable species, including problematic native wood species
  • impacting fuel distribution and loading

NCC's fire management program

Incompatible fire management, including a lack of fire, is considered by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) to pose a high threat to the biodiversity of fire-dependent ecosystems; meaning that the ecosystem is likely to seriously degrade if no action is taken over the a five to 10 year period. 

To abate this threat, NCC has developed a fire management program to implement prescribed fire in fire-dependent ecosystems that mimic the natural historic fire regime, in order to maintain and improve the condition of these systems. 

How it works

Prior to lighting the burn, Operation Prescribed Burn Plans are developed, which include the following:

  • burn unit description
  • prescription parameters
  • burn unit preparation
  • ignition plan
  • smoke management
  • personnel and partners
  • equipment, tool and personal protective equipment (PPE)
  • contingency plan
  • professional training standards
  • burning permits
  • communication plan

To determine the success of prescribed fire, NCC conducts assessments after the burn to measure the characteristics of fire frequency (interval and cycle), extent (coarse and fine scale), effectiveness of prescription (ignition, intensity, severity and season) and direct measures of biodiversity (species at risk surveys and vegetation plots). These results are related back to the prescribed fire prescription and adjustments are made to develop improved management goals and objectives.

If you have any questions about the use of prescribed fire in your community, contact us at 1.866.683.6934 and we would be happy to address any of your concerns.

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Atlantic puffins (Photo by Bill Caulfield-Browne)