I do a controlled or prescribed burn (what Native Americans called the Red Buffalo) on sections of my native prairie gardens because there are many benefits.  It warms up the soil earlier, adds organic matter, reduces some weeds, and stimulates prairie seeds to sprout.  It also takes less time than cutting everything back and and reduces the size of my huge compost pile.

Even though I’ve been burning several years, I take great care and planning every time. Although a controlled burn is not difficult to do, one mistake can be disastrous and could jeopardize the ability for others to do controlled burn.  I’m sharing my preparation steps  but you should follow any additional any guidelines, training, requirements, preparations and safety precautions to ensure your burn is successful since every yard is different.

First, I obtain all the proper permits, including an Illinois EPA burn permit  90 days or more in advance and also a burn permit from my town’s fire department a week or two before.  Please determine the regulations and permits required by your town. The EPA permit is good for 1 year, so I usually apply for the permit in the fall, so I can burn the following year in late winter or early spring, depending  on the weather.

To learn about controlled burns, I took a Chicago Wilderness’s Controlled Burn class, read the book “How to Manage Small Prairie Fires” by Wayne Pauly,  (available from the Wild Ones Store), and observed several controlled burns before attempting mine.

I prepare my garden for a controlled burn by creating firebreaks several weeks ahead.  In areas where I have shrubs or other items I don’t want to burn, I rake away any organic material such as leaves and mulch. I also crew cut any plants down to the ground , so there isn’t any plant fuel to carry the fire beyond those areas.

Creating Firebreaks for a prairie yard burn

Grass and other Plants are cut back and raked away from the post. The post is also hosed down right before the burn.

Evergreens are especially flammable because of their resin, so take extra precautions so they don’t catch on fire.  I purposely leave some areas unburned AND I don’t cut back all of  last year’s dried plant material.  Please see my Spring Cleanup – Not so Fast article to learn more.   I also cut  down the taller grasses in my prairie in half, so I won’t have 10-15 foot flames burning next to my house. I rake out some of  theexcess tree leaves which have accumulated  in some of my prairie garden areas, then later rake them back or rake them to other areas. Tree leaves cause excessive smoke , especially when damp.

A couple of days before, I pass out to my neighbors a 1 page letter explaining my controlled burn. I also contact some of my friends who have some experience burning, to help me out since a few extra eyes, flappers and rakes are always better. I instruct my friends about my burn plans and what to watch for before we start the actual burn. 

Friend are helpful when doing a prairie yard burn.

Friends provide an extra set of watchful eyes and helpful hands when burning. Hoses are always nearby.

On the day I plan on burning, I check the wind speed, direction, air temperature, inversion and humidity, by checking NOAA Fire Weather website.  Weather conditions can change suddenly during the burn. Always postpone or stop a controlled burn if weather conditions are not conducive for a  safe controlled burn  I review my burn notes and burn plan again.  An hour before starting, I contact my local fire department dispatcher by calling  the phone number  on my local burn permit.   I also rake away and wet down any mulched paths, bird post, adjacent fences or shrubs, minutes before and during the burn.

I am sharing these notes with you so that you can learn from the steps I take to prepare for a controlled burn months, weeks,  days and the day-of so that it goes safely.  These notes do not cover the actual burn procedure.

Rain garden is dark black after a prairie burn

This is my rain garden right after a burn. No surrounding plants outside the rain garden were burned due to firebreaks.

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