Three Most Powerful Tools for Managing Native Plant Communities

Three of the most commonly used tools for managing native plant communities are fire, grazing and rest. Unfortunately, many land managers do not understand when and how to use these tools; rather, many try to manage native communities primarily with other tools such as mowing, bulldozing, herbicides, tillage or planting. Although, these other tools can be useful and appropriate in certain situations, they should be considered supplemental or secondary tools, but usually are not the primary tools for effectively and economically managing native plant communities.

Plant Succession Management

Fire, grazing and rest work within the process of natural plant succession to change plant communities. Rainfall also has a tremendous impact, but we have no direct control over it. Plant succession is a mostly predictable change of plant species composition in response to disturbances or rest from disturbances. All native plant communities change through the process of natural plant succession. A plant community changes with disturbance or  rest.

Fire is a very useful tool for managing native plant communities.

Native Plant Communities Require Appropriate Disturbances

Fire, grazing and weather extremes are the primary disturbances that historically impacted native plant communities. Depending upon severity, these disturbances retard succession or maintain a successional state, while rest from disturbances during periods of adequate rainfall advances succession. Historically, many upland communities burned frequently either through lightning strike or due to man. Without fire, abundance and dominance of some species such as several native legumes decrease, while abundance and dominance of some species such as juniper increase. Without fire, prairie commonly changes into woodland. Excessive dominance by native forbs such as western ragweed, annual broomweed, bitter sneezeweed or horseweed indicates heavy disturbance, which may be excessive for some goals, and often indicates the need for rest.

The appropriate amount of fire, grazing or rest varies depending upon site, rainfall and management goals. Productive soils and areas with relatively high rainfall typically require or tolerate relatively frequent fire or grazing to satisfy many goals. For example, prairie maintenance in much of the eastern US probably requires a fire every 1-2 years. Whereas, less productive soils and areas with relatively low rainfall typically require or tolerate less frequent fire or grazing, and typically require more rest to satisfy many goals. For example, the most productive/desirable plants in a desert usually tolerate only infrequent fire or grazing and generally require long periods of rest.

Other Tools May Be Appropriate in Certain Situations

Even though fire, grazing and rest are the disturbances that native plant communities developed under, sometimes other tools can be appropriate. It may be necessary and appropriate to use a bulldozer, chain saw or tractor-mounted shear to remove woody cover when fire has been excluded from an area for too many years. Spot treatment with an herbicide might be appropriate when addressing a non-native invasive plant because such plants are not part of the native ecology and control may require extraordinary measures. Planting and or fertilization may be appropriate when native seed bank and soil characteristics have been altered through decades of cultivation or herbicide treatments.

Sources of Help

Range conservationists, wildlife biologists, and foresters can help land managers better understand and manage native plant communities. Such assistance is often available from state organizations such as state extension services, state wildlife or conservation agencies, and state forestry services, federal agencies such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and US Fish and Wildlife Service, and private organizations such as The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and The Nature Conservancy.

Sherry Leis-Missouri State University

Sherry is the Fire Science Program Leader for Missouri State University.  In this role, she leads the Great Plains Fire Science Exchange ( and fire effects monitoring for 7 National Parks in the Midwest region ( .  Great Plains Fire Science Exchange is dedicated to sharing fire science with the Great Plains community to aid in the conservation of grasslands on both public and private lands. Sherry has a Master’s degree in Rangeland Ecology and Management from Oklahoma State University.  She was inspired to dedicate her professional career to grassland conservation by the work of Aldo Leopold. Photo by Julie Denesha, 2012.




Contact Information

Great Plains Fire Science Exchange:

Other inquiries:

Office phone: (417.836.8919)



Fire Ecology in Aspen Forests

By Paul Rogers, Utah State University 

Aspen has conventionally been thought of as “fire dependent,” meaning that it requires forest fires to thrive. The quick-sprouting root system of an aspen clone  rapidly regenerates after all types of disturbance (i.e., landslides/avalanches, insects, disease, drought, tree harvest) including burning. Moreover, recent discoveries of high genetic diversity in aspen communities and common occurrences of seedling (sexual reproduction) establishment following fire is leading practitioners to question traditional aspen management. Fire suppression during recent decades is thought to be partially responsible for long-term aspen decline, however several experts have questioned this assertion. Likely, there are several causes for the lack of fire, most notably long periods of climatic moisture that increased the number of conifer trees in some aspen forests over the past century. Stable (nearly pure) aspen is much less conducive to wildfire or prescribed burning; rejuvenation in these forests is dependent on more continuous, low-level, tree mortality and regeneration.

Use of fire for restoration is a viable means of reducing conifers and promoting aspen suckers and seedlings in seral forests. Where disruption of fire cycles due to past fire suppression is evident, using fire to restore aspen is recommended.  Some managers favor a combination of harvest and burning, particularly where the possibility of escaped fires can damage property.

Further Reading

Krasnow, K. D. and S. L. Stephens. 2015. Evolving paradigms of aspen ecology and management: impacts of stand condition and fire severity on vegetation dynamics. Ecosphere 6:1-16.
Kulakowski, D., T. Veblen, T., and S. Drinkwater. 2004. The persistence of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in the Grand Mesa area, Colorado. Ecological Applications 14:1603-1614.
Kurzel, B. P., T. T. Veblen, and D. Kulakowski. 2007. A typology of stand structure and dynamics of Quaking aspen in northwestern Colorado. Forest Ecology and Management 252:176-190.
Long, J. N. and K. Mock. 2012. Changing perspectives on regeneration ecology and genetic diversity in western quaking aspen: implications for silviculture. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 42:2011-2021.
Rogers, P. C., S. M. Landhӓusser, B. D. Pinno, and R. J. Ryel. 2014. A Functional Framework for Improved Management of Western North American Aspen (Populus tremuloides Michx.). Forest Science 60:345-359.
Shinneman, D. J., W. L. Baker, P. C. Rogers, and D. Kulakowski. 2013. Fire regimes of quaking aspen in the Mountain West. Forest Ecology and Management 299:22-34.

Prescribed Fire Equipment

The minimum equipment needed for every prescribed burn include ignition devices, fire suppression, communication, and personal safety apparel. Other equipment that can be helpful is drinking water, fuel containers, chainsaws, fence pliers, water hoses, axes, and weather instruments.

Ignition equipment

Matches or a lighter should be taken to every burn, whether for starting or fighting a fire (removing fuel is one of the most effective ways to stop a wildfire). 

Drip torch being used to ignite fire during a prescribed burn

A drip torch probably is the most useful and widely used ignition tool on prescribed burns. Drip torch fuel typically is a mixture gasoline and diesel with 20-50 percent gasoline depending upon air temperature and fuel conditions. Additional pre-mixed drip torch fuel generally is brought to a burn in spark and rupture-resistant containers, which allows drip torches to be quickly refilled.

Other ground ignition devices include fusees or road flares, propane torch, terra torch , and delayed ground ignition devices. Large burns sometimes are ignited with aerial equipment such as a helitorch or delayed aerial ignition devices (DAIDS).

Fire suppression equipment

Pesticide sprayer and tractor used for fire suppression during prescribed burns

The most important fire suppression equipment is some type of water sprayer or pumper unit. All burns should have at least one power water sprayer present. Power sprayers can be traditional fire trucks, spray units mounted on skids, herbicide or livestock sprayers, ATV sprayers, etc. Spray units can be powered by gasoline motors, electric motors, or by power take-off (PTO) units. Power sprayers should be checked out, confirmed fully functional and filled with water prior to a burn. Spray units should always be started and left running so they are ready to use before the fire is ignited.

Other tools that can be useful for suppressing fire are: leaf blowers, rakes, swatters, and shovels. Leaf blowers can be used to extinguish fire in tree leaves or short grass, as well as mop-up along the edge of the fire line. Rakes also work well to extinguish low intensity fires and mop-up. Burning materials always should be blown or raked into the burned area.

Communication equipment

The fire boss should have a mobile telephone that can be used to call for assistance if problems develop. Where signal reception is adequate on larger burns, fire crews may use mobile telephones for internal communication. The best and most reliable communication equipment used by fire crews is two-way radios. Make sure the two-way radios provide adequate communication links on large burns where distance or topography interfere with signals.

Personal protective equipment

Appropriately dressed fire crew member igniting backfire during a prescribed burn

Every member of a burn crew should be dressed in clothing that is fire-resistant, including pants, shirts, jackets, boots, gloves, and hats. Clothing should be made of natural fibers such as 100% cotton or fire-resistant material like Nomex. Natural fibers do not burn or melt easily nor do specialized synthetic fire-resistant materials. Shirts should be long-sleeve and pants should be free from holes, rips or tears. Safety glasses or goggles are also very helpful to reduce heat on the face and protect the eyes from airborne particles. Apparel made from polyester and nylon, tennis shoes and open toe shoes are inappropriate for burns.

Other equipment



Drinking water is essential for most burns, and especially on growing season burns to keep the fire crew well hydrated. Spark and rupture-resistant containers with extra fuel for power sprayers, extra oil-fuel mix for leaf blowers or chainsaws are usually brought to a burn when their associated equipment is present. When burning in timber or near trees, chainsaws, pole saws, and or axes can be necessary to address burning snags or burning portions of live trees near firebreaks. Fencing pliers, wire cutters, or bolt cutters can be very helpful to quickly access a spot fire across a fence. Water hoses may be necessary to refill water tanks from the nearest available spigot. Weather meters, such as Kestrel pocket weather meters, can be useful to monitor actual, on-site weather conditions before, during, and post burn.

Burning Safely and Effectively

Several things must exist for a person to consistently conduct safe and effective prescribed fires or controlled burns. These include appropriate education, experience, goals or objectives, adequate burn plan, site preparation, proper weather, labor, equipment, ignition sequence, smoke management, and mop-up. When a person conducts a burn, they should appropriately address all of these issues. At first glance, this may seem a little overwhelming, but with some training and experience, most folks can easily develop the skills to burn safely and effectively.


Prescribed burning workshop participants listening to a fire equipment presentation

Each potential fire manager should obtain adequate education by reading publications and participating in courses, seminars, workshops, and or field days addressing fire management. Information should address safety, smoke management, fire prescription preparation, fire behavior, fuel issues, plant responses to fire, animal responses to fire, ignition procedures, laws, sociopolitical issues, and others. Although a few days of thorough, well-organized educational effort and adequate experience might be enough for a person to start burning, fire education should be viewed as a lifelong process because there is much to learn and the science continues to grow.


Experienced fire boss coaching a new prescribed burner

Each potential fire manager should obtain adequate experience by assisting on burns with skilled fire manager(s) burn before conducting their own burns. Burning is similar to driving a car where we learn much by reading and participating in educational courses, but we do not become safe, skilled drivers until we operate vehicles for a while. We learn how hard to push an accelerator or brake, and how much to turn a steering wheel primarily from experience rather than from reading or courses. Similarly, we learn how to set  fire and how to interpret and react to fire behaviors primarily from experience rather than just academic knowledge. Most people continue to learn from experience even after hundreds of fires.


Goals and or objectives should be established for each burn. These goals can be specific for livestock, wildlife or forestry objectives or a combination of all. The goals or objectives then guide fire prescription preparation, site preparation, suitable weather conditions, labor and equipment needs, etc. Goals or objectives help us aim at a target so we can consistently hit it or get close to it.


Much of the work involved with conducting a safe, effective burn occurs in the planning stages. A burn typically should be planned months, sometimes more than a year, in advance to provide adequate time for written prescribed fire plan preparation, fine fuel accumulation through rest, firebreak preparation, coarse and volatile fuels management near firebreaks, labor and equipment arrangements and preparation, and neighbor and civil authority notifications. A written prescribed plan is one of the things that separates a prescribed fire from a well-intentioned, but sometimes poorly planned, controlled burn.

Site preparation

Site preparation involves delineating and preparing firebreaks, moving coarse and volatile fuels away from firebreaks (or alternatively, moving firebreak locations or adjusting firebreak widths to address coarse and volatile fuels), accumulating adequate fine fuels, and sometimes modifying fuels mechanically. Most physical labor and or heavy equipment activity that might be necessary for a burn typically are involved in site preparation. Areas grazed by livestock may require deferment via closed gates or a patch burn grazing approach to accumulate adequate fine fuels.


The burn prescription developed during planning establishes acceptable wind directions, wind speeds, relative humidity, smoke management guidelines, and air temperatures to accomplish goals or objectives with the available fuels, firebreaks, labor and equipment. A burn manager should closely monitor weather forecasts to determine when weather conditions are suitable for a burn. When weather parameters are outside prescription, a burn is a ‘no go.’ Without a high level of skill and site preparation, most burns should not be conducted when wind changes directions, wind speeds are above 20 mile per hour, or relative humidity is below 20 percent.


The minimum amount of labor needed for a burn depends upon area size, site preparation, crew skill level, and the written prescription. With adequate skill and site preparation, some burns can be safely and effectively conducted with only two to three people, whereas other burns may require crews of seven or more. However, one person is not an adequate burn crew because no contingency exists when a single person gets sick, gets injured, or must leave the site.


Drip torch being used to ignite fire during a prescribed burn

Minimum types of equipment needed for every burn include ignition, fire suppression, communication, and personal apparel. Ignition equipment usually includes matches and one or more drip torches; fire suppression equipment usually includes one or more water sprayers or pumpers, but also frequently includes other equipment such as leaf blowers, rakes, swatters, backpack sprayers, and or shovels; communication equipment usually includes at least one mobile telephone, but frequently includes other mobile telephones and or two-way radios; and personal apparel includes fire-resistant pants, shirts and or jackets, boots, gloves and hats. Other equipment can be helpful or needed, such as drinking water dispensers, fuel containers, chainsaws, fence pliers, water hoses, axes, and weather meters.

Ignition sequence

Each burn should be ignited in a certain sequence to prevent fire escape and minimize smoke problems. Many firebreaks are not wide enough to stop a headfire. Usually, backfire, flank fire, and strip headfire are lit along firebreaks to create blackened areas that effectively widen firebreaks. Most time spent burning is allocated to burning areas along firebreaks to prevent fire escape. Generally, relatively little time is spent igniting the headfire. Headfires are not used in some burns due to escape and smoke considerations.

Smoke management

Smoke management should receive significant consideration in the written prescription. More problems are caused by smoke than from the flames. Smoke can move and cause impacts many miles away from a burn. Smoke should be kept away from highways, airports, schools, nursing homes, towns, and residential areas. Fire crews should always monitor smoke because it can indicate when a fire is burning in an inappropriate location or manner.


Fire crew member mopping up after a prescribed burn

A fire manager and crew should remain with a burn until all fire is safely contained within the perimeter. Burning and smoking items near firebreaks should be completely burned, moved away from firebreaks, or extinguished before the crew leaves. After the crew is allowed to leave, a fire manager should continue to monitor a burned site every day until all smoking debris is extinguished, which may be a week or more in timbered areas or areas with wood/brush piles.

Bio Russell Stevens

Russell L. Stevens was raised on a cow calf operation in south central Oklahoma. He attended Murray State College, Southeastern Oklahoma State University and received his Master of Science Degree at Angelo State University in Animal Science, Range/Wildlife option. Russell joined the Noble Foundation in 1989 where he currently serves as a wildlife and range consultant.

Russell is a Certified Wildlife Biologist by the Wildlife Society and a Certified Range Management Consultant by the Society for Range Management. His areas of interest include wildlife habitat improvement, wild turkey management, white-tailed deer management, range management, prescribed fire, brush sculpturing, plant identification, feral hog impacts, and waterfowl issues.

Contact information:



How does fire impact ticks?

Ticks, chiggers, horn flies, and other external parasites can be reduced with fire. However, studies have shown parasite reductions are generally short-lived with parasites typically returning to pre-burn levels within a couple of seasons.


Relevant literature:

Cully, J. 1999. Lone star tick abundance, fire, and bison grazing in tallgrass prairie. Journal of Range Management 52:139–144.

Drew, M., W. Samuel, G. Lukiwski, and J. Willman. 1985. Evaluation of burning for control of winter ticks (Dermancentor albicuptus) in central Alberta. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 21: 313–315.

Swengal, A. 2001. A literature review of insect responses to fire compared to other conservation managements of open habitat. Biodiversity and Conservation 10:1141–1169.

How wide should a firebreak or fireguard be?

There is no set standard, but it should be wide enough for the fuels along the boundary of the burn unit. Typically a bareground line 4 to 10 feet wide is sufficient, but narrow cow trails and even mowed lines can be safely used. The width of the firebreak can be offset by reducing the amount of fuel right next to the edge of the burn unit by mowing or shredding to diminish flame heights and fire intensity.

Dwayne Elmore – Oklahoma State University

Dwayne Elmore is the Wildlife Extension Specialist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Oklahoma State University ( He has both Extension and research responsibilities.  Specific areas of interest include wildlife habitat relationships, the role of disturbance to maintain sustainable ecosystems, and social constraints to conservation.  

Contact Information:

phone: 405-744-9636