Current Edition

current edition

Water

Learn Before You Burn This Spring

Despite reports to the contrary, it does look like this winter will come to an end – someday! Inevitably, as temperatures begin to warm and the winter snows melt, many ranchers and farmers will head outside to begin their annual agricultural burns. 

Each year, as the spring burning season gets into full swing, at least a few of these burns get out of control. So, what can you do ensure you and your neighbors stay safe this spring? Learn before you burn!

It doesn’t take long once the snow begins to melt for fire danger to rapidly increase, even after a cool and wet winter. The persistent spring wind only serves to further dry vegetation and literally provides more fuel for the fire. A wind-whipped fire in quick-burning dormant vegetation can cause a burn to easily become uncontrollable.

Wind impacts

It is common for calm morning wind to give way to gusty wind around the midday hours during the spring months. A weather forecast of how and when the wind speed and direction may change during the day can mean the difference between a successful burn and having an animated discussion with your local fire warden.

Federal and state land management agencies routinely obtain weather forecasts from the National Weather Service. So should you! In fact, landowners, conservation districts – even local fire officials – should get the most up-to-date forecast possible before lighting a controlled burn. 

Your local National Weather Service office can be contacted 24 hours a day by phone. The two NWS offices located in Wyoming are in Cheyenne, at 800-269-6220, and Riverton, at 800-211-1448, and are staffed 24 hours a day. Area-specific forecasts are also available online at weather.gov/cheyenne and weather.gov/riverton or on your SmartPhone at mobile.weather.gov.

Burning tips

Remember, your fire is your responsibility. Try to conduct your burn as safely as possible by following these tips.

First, call the local National Weather Service for a local weather forecast. Then, call local fire authorities to ensure your burn is legal and inform them of your plans. Talk to neighbors about your plans, as a matter of safety and courtesy.

Also, it is important to have water, shovels and rakes nearby for all those assisting the burn.

Begin your burn where it might be easiest for the fire to get out of control, and try to burn into the wind. This slows the rate of spread and is easier to control.

Lastly, control the fire. Keep piles small, stay with the fire, call 911 if the fire gets out of hand.

Consequences of damage

What if your agricultural burn becomes out-of-control and causes property damage? You can imagine damage costs and firefighting costs can quickly escalate when homes are lost, outbuildings torched and fences damaged.

This past year, the U.S. Forest Service billed a Jackson man $6.3 million for the costs of fighting a wildfire he is accused of starting when he burned twigs and paper in a barrel. Yikes! It might have been cheaper to take it to the dump!

Nearly every spring, prescribed burning impacts state-owned property across the state but especially in Big Horn, Hot Springs, Fremont, Park and Washakie counties in northwest Wyoming.

Citizens conducting prescribed burning are criminally and civilly liable for damages to state property, including right-of-way fencing and other state property inside the state rights-of-way.

DOT perspective

“From the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s (WYDOT) perspective, the safety of the traveling public, workers and volunteers in the rights-of-way is first and foremost in decisions made regarding activity on or along the state highway system,” said WYDOT District Engineer Shelby Carlson of Basin. “The situation of burning highway rights-of-way generates safety concerns for the traveling public by the potential of limited visibility caused by low hanging smoke and damage to fences, signs, sign posts, guardrail and permitted utilities. Damage to any of these items may increase the potential for a crash or otherwise jeopardize the safety of the highway user.”

Carlson said fences are impacted by prescribed burning near the rights-of-way. 

“The use of metal posts minimizes damage to fence posts from fire, but fire destroys the galvanization of steel posts and the integrity of the wire and may either destroy or severely damage the brace and end panels which are constructed of wooden posts,” she said. “Wire that has been damaged by fire cannot be stretched for fence repair, and it must be replaced because the tensile strength is destroyed. This lengthens WYDOT’s response time to repair a fence breach, and it increases maintenance costs.”

Some of the state highway rights-of-way in question are held by WYDOT through permanent easements. But although the title to the land belongs to the grantor of the easement, a highway easement brings with it all of the laws, rules, policies and authority that go along with the control of highways.

Chapter 12 of the WYDOT Rules and Regulations states in part that “any use of the right-of-way which interferes with construction or maintenance of the highway, or safe use of the traveling public, shall be considered an unlawful encroachment.”

Wyoming law makes these unlawful encroachments misdemeanor offenses on state-owned or controlled lands.

Myths and facts

To many people, burning grass is a tradition, and almost a rite, of spring. Upon closer examination, however, the reasons for spring grass burning are largely unfounded and rather than being beneficial, grass burning is destructive and dangerous.

Myths say, “It’s safe to burn grass as long as there is still some snow on the ground.” 

However, within hours of snow melting, dead grass becomes flammable, especially if there have been drying winds. Grass fires burn hot, fast and spread quickly around and even over patches of snow.

It’s a common myth that spring grass burning controls weeds. 

In reality, weeds deposited their seeds into the surrounding soil last fall. Burning creates an ideal bare soil bed for the seeds to germinate. 

Another common myth is that spring burning improves the new grass crop. 

Burning actually reduces grass yield 50 to 70 percent. 

Some say that burning makes the new grass come in greener. 

To the contrary, the new grass will be the same color whether burning took place or not. It just appears greener due to the contrast against the bare, blackened ground. 

It is often said, “I don’t see much wildlife around here, so I can burn grass without threatening any animals.”

However, burning destroys the habitat of species you don’t normally see such as mice and voles, as well as the nests and eggs of certain birds. If the fire gets out of control, larger animals can be caught by the flames, and many species will lose habitat.

Another common myth is that lost habitat will grow back in a few months, and the wildlife will return. 

Rather, it may take several years to replace what was lost. Vegetation is often multilayered with higher growth protecting undergrowth. Different species depend on different layers for food or shelter. Loss of the lower layer and its residents will impact species that prey upon those lost species. 

Additional myths say, “Spring burning is the easiest way to get rid of last year’s vegetation.”

While this method may be easy, it is not good for the soil. Burning results in most of the old plants’ nutrients going up in smoke or remaining in ash that is washed away. Burning also releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Plowing old plants under or allowing them to decompose allows carbon and fertilizing elements to go back into the soil.

Finally, it’s common to hear, “It’s pretty safe to burn grass here. There’s a fire hall just down the road.”

Producers should keep in mind, if you light a fire, you are responsible for it. If your fire gets out of control, you may be liable for the cost of fighting the fire, the destruction of others’ property and face criminal penalties for violating burning regulations.