Insights

Planned Ignitions vs. Prescribed Fire: Understand The Difference

Planned ignitions are an important wildfire management tactic that can help to reduce the potential spread of an existing wildfire, but there are many misconceptions about how this tactic is used.   

Post-planned ignition perimeter guard for the Donnie Creek Wildfire

   

What is a planned ignition?  

  
A planned ignition is the controlled application of fire to reduce the fuel (the burnable materials in the forest) available for a wildfire to consume. This helps to build a strong anchor point for crews to work from, reducing the dangers linked to firefighting in challenging terrain or during unpredictable fire behaviour. By initiating fire on their own terms, wildland firefighters can gain greater control over a wildfire, increasing the chance of containment and minimizing the potential for uncontrolled spread. Planned ignitions are usually carried out with low-intensity surface fire created with drip torches and monitored by BCWS wildland firefighters.  

“Planned ignitions have been used as a wildfire containment tactic for centuries. It allows us to remove forest fuels on our terms and increase our chances of controlling the fire,” said Vic Upshaw, Cultural and Prescribed Fire Specialist with the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society.   

During a planned ignition, wildland firefighters will use a range of techniques to burn the fuels between an existing wildfire and established control lines. These advanced ignition operations are coordinated by ignition specialists and require planning and consideration of fuel and weather conditions. Ignition specialists are highly trained and experienced, with an in-depth understanding of fire behaviour, ignition patterns, and the many ways fire can be applied to the land. Less complex ignition operations still require planning and coordination, but are often led and conducted by ground operations leadership on the fireline.  

Ultimately, planned ignitions are about using fire to reduce an existing wildfire’s ability to spread while creating a safer and more efficient work environment for firefighters.  

Planned ignitions vs. prescribed burning  

Planned ignitions are often compared to prescribed burning, and they do have similarities, but there are also important differences.   

Prescribed burning refers to the planned and controlled application of fire to a specific land area to achieve a variety of land stewardship objectives. These objectives can include public safety and wildfire risk reduction, as well as preservation of Indigenous cultural values, ecosystem health, wildlife habitat restoration, and economic or recreation values. Prescribed fire can help to reduce the risk of future wildfires but is not used to contain fires that are already burning. 

Crucially, prescribed burning starts with partnerships and planning to identify shared objectives and ensure that they are met. Burn proponents identify desired land stewardship outcomes, and work with a wide range of partners to determine where, when and how fire can be safely used to achieve those outcomes.   

Planning a prescribed burn starts with identifying a desired end state for a treatment area. From this analysis, practitioners consider the local topography, the available fuels and the site and weather conditions required to meet the desired outcome of the prescribed burn. These factors formulate a burn prescription.  

These burns are usually implemented after months or even years of planning and often take place in the spring or fall, when the fire danger is low and prescribed burn bosses can more easily control fire intensity to align with the required conditions. Some objectives require hotter and more volatile conditions to meet the desired outcome, meaning that some burns may take place during fire season. 

In addition to fire weather planning, prescribed burning requires the mobilization of resources, detailed briefings and safety preparation, and abundant communication and engagement with the surrounding community. These factors, among others, formulate the burn plan. 

The goal of a prescribed burn is to achieve the specific land management identified by the proponent and laid out in the burn plan.   

Reasons we use planned ignitions:   

  • Removing available fuel: Intentionally burning vegetation in a controlled manner to create fire breaks. These cleared areas act as barriers to halt the progression of wildfires, depriving them of additional fuel sources. 
  • Modifying fire behavior: Strategic planned ignitions can help alter the direction and intensity of a fire. By utilizing ignition patterns and topography, ignition specialists can influence the fire’s direction of spread. 
  • Reducing firefighter hazard: By securing anchor points, flanks, and sections of fire, strategic planned ignitions can help to control the fire behaviour to minimize the risk of firefighters being caught off-guard or exposed to rapidly changing fire conditions, enhancing safety on the front lines.

Reasons we use prescribed burning:

  • Public Safety and Wildfire Risk Reduction: Using controlled, low-intensity fire in the spring or fall can safely clear overgrown vegetation, minimizing the potential for destructive wildfire near communities and enhancing overall forest health and resilience. It is important to note that many areas near communities require a combination of treatments, including thinning and pruning of trees, before prescribed fire can be safely applied.
  • Preserving Indigenous Cultural Values: Indigenous Peoples have described a long history and cultural importance of using fire as a stewardship practice on the land. It is just as much an important ceremonial practice for some Indigenous cultures as it is a tool for protecting their communities and shaping the land to their specific needs. Many First Nations have expressed that BC’s history of colonialism and fire suppression have led to a loss of burning practices. After recent devastating wildfire seasons and engagement with First Nations communities, the BC government has committed to expanding the use of cultural and prescribed fire in partnership with Indigenous communities. 
  • Improving Wildlife Habitat: Eliminating fire from forests, grasslands and other landscapes can cause ecosystem changes that affect key species, negatively impacting wildlife populations. Prescribed fire can bring back wildlife food sources, maintain areas required for travel, and bring balance to food chains and species. 
  • Revitalizing Vegetation: Prescribed fire can help maintain and enhance the health of ecosystems by naturally rejuvenating the soil and opening up space for sunlight to reach overgrown areas, which allows diverse native plant species to thrive. 

Similarities 

While planned ignitions and prescribed burning are not interchangeable, similar tools are employed to apply fire to the landscape in both cases. Ignition methods are chosen based on the objective(s) of a burn. For example, a prescribed fire that is intended to restore ecosystems may require fire to burn in certain areas and at certain intensities. 

Learn more about different ignition methods:  

Aerial ignitions involve the use of helicopters equipped with heli-torches or PSD (plastic sphere dispenser) machines. This approach provides greater coverage and enables access to remote or inaccessible areas. 

  • A heli-torch is a device attached to a barrel of burn fuel and suspended underneath a helicopter. A trained pilot ignites the mixture, which drops onto vegetation for rapid and effective burning on the ground and treetops.  
  • A PSD machine dispenses plastic spheres that ignite once they land on the ground through an exothermic reaction.  The PSD machine is installed in a helicopter in the passenger’s compartment behind the pilot. The operator sits next to the PSD machine, and controls when and where the spheres are dispensed.

Aerial ignitions are usually employed in inaccessible terrain, such as steep mountains, dense forests or wetlands to allow for ignition in otherwise hard-to-reach locations. Weather conditions are also factored in when determining the most appropriate ignition method. Aerial ignitions can be conducted at higher altitudes, taking advantage of more favourable weather conditions. This method of ignition can be used for both prescribed fire and planned ignitions. 

A heli-torch drops jellied gasoline as part of a planned ignition being used to control fire behaviour during the 2023 wildfire season. 

Ground ignitions involve using a hand-held drip torch to set fire to the area from the ground. This method is commonly employed in areas where precision and control are critical. A drip torch is filled with a mixture of gas and diesel and continuously lit by a wrapped wick. It can be used to ignite the underbrush and burn surface vegetation. Drip-torches can be used for smaller-scale or basic ignitions. 

Ground ignitions are ideal for low-intensity burns and fine-scale control, and are often used to precisely target sensitive habitats or cultural resources, to avoid unintended impacts. This reduces the fuel load without altering the ecosystem. Ground ignitions are a great practice for small-scale operations as they require fewer resources. They can also complement aerial ignition operations to manage intense ignition patterns.   

A drip-torch being used to initiate a ground ignition  

The choice between aerial and ground ignitions is based on a careful assessment of various factors, including fire management objectives, safety considerations, available resources, environmental conditions, and the expertise of firefighting personnel. In many scenarios, a combination of both aerial and ground ignitions might be utilized to maximize effectiveness and achieve the desired outcomes based on the location and environmental factors of the space. 

To learn more about cultural burning or prescribed fire, visit prescribedfire.ca.

To learn more about planned ignitions, check out this video

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