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Prescribed Burns in Montana Ranching and Farming

07 Aug
Buzz Tatom August 7, 2016 0

Updated 4/24/18

Prescribed burns can be very controversial in a land that faces forest fires that can engulf anything in its path. Especially at this time of year when all we are hearing about is how fires are burning and firefighters are risking their lives in fighting forest fires. This article isn’t talking about controlled or prescribed burns in forests. What we are talking about is how Montana ranchers and farmers can use prescribed burns to improve pasture and rangeland to put more money in their pocket. Here at Venture West Ranches, we are focused on helping farmers and ranchers better understand how to be successful.

What are Prescribed Burns?

Fires, to most of us, are scary, especially in Montana. Things get out of control with naturally occurring forest fires in Montana. When we say prescribed burns, we are talking about is very controlled burns that are planned, done at the right time with the right amount of precautions. Most look at fire as being destructive. There are a few that look at fire as constructive, but controlled burn experts look at prescribed burns as bringing change (themanagementadvantage.com). Prescribed burns help reduce fire hazards by reducing the fuel available for future fires. If done right prescribed burns improve habitat, add nutrients to the soil and reduce the danger of larger out of control fires. Most of the general public has to overcome the anti wildfire message that we all have heard with Smokey the Bear. Frequent small burns reduce fire hazards.

The Origins of Prescribed Burns

Native Americans were the first to use planned burns. Prescribed burns were used to improve grazing, clear land for farming, clear access to areas, and improve safety from forest fires, snakes, and large predators. Early cattlemen adopted these tools to help improve forage and keep woody plants from encroaching on their pastures. What they found is fire is very cost and labor efficient.

So what happens with a prescribed burn and how does it help Montana ranchers and farmers?

Mother nature actually is built for burns to come through every 7-10 years. Clean out the old and regenerate the new. Once a fire comes through and burns the dead leaf and needle fuel on the ground and opens the canopy above, grasses and forbs start growing quickly producing forage. This gives cover for animals and game birds, brings insects, and produces seeds. It converts land that was not usable by livestock into land that produces weight on livestock.

If you are a farmer it can reduce disease and can have great benefits for streams by reducing the amount of water that thinned tree stands pull in water usage. An average large tree can pull more than 100 gallons of water out of the ground per day. With our issues of noxious weeds in Montana, it is a great tool for Montana ranchers and farmers to reduce and control this never-ceasing problem. This also allows native plants to come back and flourish. Controlled burns are also a great tool for keeping sagebrush under control. With a good prescribed burn, sagebrush can be knocked back for several years. See our article about things to consider before buying a Montana ranch for sale for additional information about Noxious Weeds.

Why don’t more private landowners in Montana use prescribed burns?

  • Lack of knowledge & experience
  • Air Quality Standards
  • Lack of equipment & personnel
  • Liability & Smoke Management Concerns
  • Smaller Tracts/Multiple Owners
  • Financial Limitations
  • Not aware of benefits
  • Fear

We have been conditioned since the beginning of time to fear fire, although, we realize it as a great tool. Concerns about liability and the burn getting out of control can trump landowner’s beliefs in what good it can accomplish. If planned carefully and done under the right conditions with the right equipment and personnel prescribed burns can be a great tool for Montana ranchers and farmers. You have to start with a burn plan. This starts with the desired outcome. Start with the end in mind. Consider what near potential hazards you have to the prescribed burn. What are your desired weather conditions and do you have them? Then, finally, what equipment and manpower resources do you need to be successful.

Weather Conditions Needed for Prescribed Burns

  • Temperature
  • Relative Humidity
  • Type of fuel to us
  • Wind Speed

Tracking the weather is critical with prescribed burns. If you don’t look at the weather forecast before a burn, you put yourself and others in danger. Unexpected winds can kick up a fire and create an out of control fire. This is a worst-case scenario because at best, small things you don’t want to burn, burn, and at worst, you could create a massive forest fire. Use your discretion and do not burn if you absolutely don’t have to.

Types of Controlled Burns

tools for prescribed burns

After you have your plan and the weather conditions you want to decide the type burn you are going to use. Montana ranchers and farmers will have to decide between four types of controlled burns.

A backing fire would be the first and probably most ideal for a beginning prescribed burner. A backing fire is a burn that is downwind and burns back into the wind. This type of burn is pretty slow burning and more controllable. The next is a head fire and this has wind at its back. This one can be much quicker burning and many times it is done with strip burns where thin sections are burnt between the start and finish to keep the intensity of the burndown. The next is flanking fire. This is where the burn is started perpendicular to the direction of the wind so it feeds into itself. The next is the ring fire which encircles the area. This leaves no escape for a wildlife and is not ideal.

So how do you start controls and the end of the burn? You build fire breaks. A firebreak can be a number of things. They can be built with a dozer, they can be plowed or cut with a tractor. Fire breaks can also be roads or a stream. It is anything that is going to make it very difficult for the burn to jump the break. The prescribed burn should burn into the fire break and burn itself out.

Final Steps Before Burning

So you have a good plan, good weather, decided on your type of burn and built your fire breaks. Your preparation is almost done but not quite. The rancher or farmer needs to notify all authorities, check into permits needed and make sure all neighbors are aware you are going to be doing a burn. You probably should be prepared to tell them how big, what type of burn and a number of other questions. Have you talked to all that are going to be helping on the burn? Checked all your equipment that you are going to be using?

Prescribed burns can be controversial in a state like Montana where forest fires and the ways our federal government choose to fight them solicit very passionate opinions. I am not talking about prescribed burns in forests. Those should be handled by fire professionals if they are done and I’m not sure they should be done. The downside is if we just allow growth to continue it provides dangerous fuel for even bigger fires down the road. This article is not about prescribed forest burns but pastures and lightly treed land to remove the dead fuel and improve pasture and riparian areas that can be controlled.

What about wildlife?

Montana ranchers and farmers are caretakers for some of the most beautiful wildlife in the world so I want to address it. Wildlife rarely gets killed by prescribed burns. Wildlife runs, flies, slithers there way from fires. A number go into holes or under rock piles. The advantages that prescribed burns bring for wildlife are tremendous and allow for higher numbers of animals and in better habitat conditions.


Here are a few places where you can find the equipment for prescribed burns:


Here is a professional involved in prescribed burns:

James Cancroft

If you liked this article you might also like

Building Revenue Streams on Montana farms and ranches

If you need further persuasion, consider our article on Why land is a great investment

Also feel free to check out our properties page if you are interested in buying or selling a farm or ranch.

If you are starting to look at buying a Montana Farm or Ranch or are ready to market your Montana farm or ranch to the world, give us a call or email us. Contact us.

The following websites were used as references in this article:

The Management Advantage and FWS and NCSU


About the Author


Montana Ranch Real Estate

Buzz Tatom

Partner at Venture West Ranches

Buzz Tatom, a partner at Venture West Ranches, is a ranch owner and has built, run and sold numerous businesses in his career. This gives him a unique background in helping Montana farmers and ranchers navigate the life decisions that we all have to face. Whether it is passing a ranch on to the next generation or planning for eventual sale, his talents and contacts help save clients money and navigate complicated transactions.

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