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 compost pile. Even though I’ve been burning several years, I take great care and planning each time. Although a controlled burn is not difficult to do, one mistake can burn more than a prairie and may 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 spring.
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 watched 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 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.
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 some of the taller grasses in my prairie in half, so I won’t have 15 foot flames burning next to my house which can be intimidating to my neighbors, and me. I rake out some of excess 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.
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. Please share any extra steps you take to prepare for a controlled burn in your yard by providing your comments below. Thank you in advance.