Burn School

Most of us who own land are constantly looking for ways to make it more appealing to wildlife, including deer and turkeys.

We plant food plots, build bedding areas and provide cover and nesting areas for birds, but what many people don’t think about is prescribed fire.


Grant Woods from GrowingDeer.TV is a noted land manager who spends a lot of time on burn management.

“One of the main reasons we use prescribed fire is to set back vegetation,” Woods said. “Big, bulky weeds and saplings don’t provide much in the way of food for wildlife. A controlled burn sets back this type of vegetation and allows young, succulent plants to flourish, which provides food for many wildlife species.”

Low-growing plants also provide good cover.

“Saplings and other vegetation can grow quickly, and before long, they shade the ground, providing good cover for wildlife,” he added. “You want the cover to be zero to 3 feet off the ground, because that is where most wildlife lives. A controlled burn will kill much of the taller vegetation and saplings, setting the clock back to zero and giving new vegetation a chance to grow.”

 If you ever want to see how good a burn can be, visit the woods shortly after a burn, especially out west. I have hunted elk in several places. One year, there were few elk in an area; however, a few years later, after a fire, we found the same landscape overflowing with elk. When the new vegetation starts to grow, wildlife will show up.


Many landowners know prescribed fire will benefit the habitat on their land but are afraid to burn. 

“A lot can go wrong if a burn isn’t conducted properly,” Woods said.

One way to reduce your fear is to attend a burn school, as some call it. John Goff with the Alabama Forestry Commission says getting a prescribed fire certification doesn’t take an enormous amount of time, and the classes teach people how to properly hold a controlled burn. It also makes it easier to get a burn permit in areas of the country where a permit is required before you can use prescribed fire.

“Being certified gives you some protection under the law if a fire gets away from you,” Goff said. “That alone is a good reason to attend a class.”

Obtaining the certificate entails taking a 32-hour class over four days. Six hours of continuing education is required every five years.

There’s much more to the class than learning how not to burn down the woods.

“Smoke screenings is one of the most important things people learn in the class,” Goff said. “If the smoke gets away from a person, it can cause problems such as causing auto accidents.” The class also teaches burning techniques; the roles of wind speed, direction and humidity; the best times of year to burn based on the desired outcome; creating firebreaks; mopping up after the fire; and how often to burn.


Whether you attend a burn school or not, there are a few things to consider before you burn.

“Where a person lives will determine the safest time of year to burn,” Woods said. “As a rule, many people burn in the winter or early spring, while the ground is damp and the possibility of a fire going out of control is greatly reduced.”

Timing is important depending on what your intentions are as well. For instance, a late-season burn will control woody vegetation and cool-season grasses better than a dormant-season, or winter burn. If you want to attract turkeys, Woods recommends having a fire within a few days of the opener of turkey season.

“When I have a burn in the spring, the turkeys show up,” he said. “Removing leaf litter and debris allows the turkeys to easily find insects and other food.”

There are many benefits to holding a controlled burn on your property, so take a class this year and get burning!

The language of prescribed fire

  • Strip head fire: This fire burns slightly faster than a backfire and is relatively safe. A series of strips are lit on the upwind side of the burn area, burning one at a time. This is ideal when burning with a limited number of personnel.
  • Backfire: This type of fire is started on the downwind side of the burn area. It is a safe and cool fire, which burns the top layers of fuel on the ground. It burns slow against the wind and expands the firebreak. It is often used in conjunction with other fire types.
  • Parallel or flank fire: This fire burns hotter and faster than a strip fire or backfire. It works well on square or round parcels. A fire is ignited on the sides of the burn site, parallel to the wind direction at the same time or soon after a backfire is lit.
  • Perimeter fire: This fire is one of the quickest burn methods and creates a hotter fire than those listed above. It also can be harder to control and must be handled carefully. Start with a backfire, followed by lighting the flanks and finish by lighting the upwind side of the burn area, called the head. This head fire will move rapidly toward the flanks and backfire. 

Burning tips

  • Like anything we do in life, having the right tools is critical. When burning, a drip torch is a must. A drip torch is designed to start a fire without starting you on fire. The fuel inside the torch should be one part gasoline to two parts diesel fuel.
  • Other must-have tools include: shovels, water sprayers and a fire rake.
  • Two-way communication also is necessary.
  • Have a crew lined up before the day of the burn. Having your burn crew take the burn class with you is advised.  
  • Obtain a burn permit if one is required where you live.
  • Let officials and neighbors know you will be burning.
  • Have firebreaks in place days before you plan to burn, and keep them clean of leaves and other flammable debris.
  • Make sure the humidity, wind and weather are ideal on the day of the burn.
  • Develop a written plan several weeks before the burn, which needs to include an equipment list, emergency telephone numbers and a plan for handling any jumps in the firebreak. Discuss this plan with the burn crew before lighting the fire.
  • While it’s not required in most areas, it’s smart to contact your local fire department and sheriff’s department to let them know you are burning. This will head off calls from passing motorists or surrounding residents. 
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