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Prescribed Burns

Every year, wildfires burn thousands of acres of forest in the U.S. The summer of 2000 was a particularly bad year, with wildfires burning in many states in the west. Drought, which makes the trees and plants very dry, can make wildfires worse. Wildfires are often started by lightning, by accident, such as when a camping fire is not completely put out. Fires can also be started on purpose by people who commit the crime of arson.

There are many firefighters across the country whose job it is to put out forest fires. In some cases, these special men and women actually set fires - called prescribed burns - to keep wildfires from going out of control and burning many acres.

JimPhoto of Jim Brenner Brenner is one of those people. He is the fire management administrator for the state of Florida. He is an expert on how fire behaves and how to help wild lands through the careful use of controlled fires.

What is a controlled or prescribed burn?
According to Brenner, a prescribed burn is a tool that firefighters use to reduce the "fuel" for the fire - in other words, to burn trees or brush that would fuel a large wildfire. He particularly makes sure that the areas of the forest that comes near where people live are kept as safe as possible.

In addition, Brenner said, controlled burns actually mimic what happens in nature. Many birds, animals and plants rely on occasional fires to change the environment in a way that is beneficial to them.

A prescribed burn may be only 10 or 15 acres or as large as thousands of acres in size. Of course, Brenner said, you have to be very careful when using controlled burns. They are only done when the weather conditions are just right. The wind, for example, has to be blowing in the right direction to move the fire in the way the firefighters want.

How do firefighters control a controlled burn? They use a natural break like a river or an existing road, or they create a "plow line" by digging into the land with a plow to create a "line" that stops the fire. They firefighters carefully set a fire that will burn away from the line. Sometimes firefighters will set "spot fires" that will burn back into the original fire, taking all the fuel away and then the fires burn out. Anatomy of a Prescribed Burn

Controlled burns are dangerous and are done very carefully and by trained experts, Brenner said.

Even with controlled burns reducing the fuel, wildfires still occur. Brenner leads firefighters who battle the flames. He joins with local fire departments, the Florida division of forestry and federal agencies to fight fires.

The main tool with wildfires in the East - unlike with house fires - is not water. The main tool is the fire plow. The plow allows firefighters to make a "break" around the fire that stops the fire from moving forward.

Firefighters also use helicopters to drop water on the flames. This cools the fire (but doesn't put it out) and allows firefighters to get closer to the flames to create fire breaks. Sometimes air tanker planes also drop fire retardant, which makes the plants and trees less likely to catch fire.

Brenner said his job is difficult, but important, as he gets to protect both forests and people.

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