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3 Weather Indicators Landowners Should Know BEFORE Burning

burning fire forestry management prescribed burning prescribed fire Oct 10, 2022

The weather is cooling down, and you're ready to grab your oversized sweater and cup of coffee to cozy up on the porch and enjoy the brisk mornings. And at night, getting snuggled up by a warm fire pit. 

Something about autumn just screams comfort. I don't know if it's all the season-crazed holidays, football season, kids getting back into school routines or simply the changing weather that gives us the change we periodically desire. Maybe it's the beautiful colors of the changing leaves (unless you live in the Coastal South, ha!) and something about the idea of being warmed and yet chilled at the exact same time...

And fall weather and fire just go hand and hand together...

This is true for our personal lives (more movies by the fireplace, a glass of wine by the firepit, or even a small bonfire with friends while camping) and also true for our landowner plans.

In most regions the burn bans have been lifted, and with temperatures trending downward it is the time to start paying attention to what YOUR weather factor needs are to get your prescribed burn completed. 

If you are unsure about whether fire is a good idea to utilize, check out our article HERE about why fire is one of the best management tools you can implement.  (Although I will admit it is NOT a suitable option for all landowners...)

With the comfort and excitement of fall, it can be easy to get over-eager to add fire to your site, ignoring some key factors which may be detrimental to your burn. And it is heavily reliant upon weather. 

Like all management recommendations, burn plans are written specifically for your tract and goals.

So here are 3 things you ABSOLUTELY need to pay attention to specifically for your tract.

1. Wind direction.

Wind directions labeled are where the wind are coming in FROM not where they are going.... Depending where your land is situated, there may be some sensitive sites that absolutely cannot tolerate smoke, and you MUST avoid burning on days when the wind direction would push smoke their way. Examples of sensitive sites would include hospitals, daycares, nursing homes, major highways/interstates, and airports (not an all inclusive list.) It is best to avoid burning in the direction of these locations completely but distance also plays a factor and the size of the sensitive site and size of your burn. For example again if you're only burning a 25 acre stand that has previously been burned and are approximately 5 miles south of the daycare with other idea conditions you're probably okay to burn still. In contrast to attempting to burn a 150 acre block within 1/2 a mile of the nursing home or airport... that simply wouldn't work even with all other best conditions. So when in doubt, this typically will be your first limiting factor. 

Special note: areas along the coast (typically within 45 miles) may notice a phenomenon called "sea breeze." This is when the wind changes direction (and typically speed) everyday at roughly the exact same time, bringing the wind in from the coast itself. Typically this will be an Eastern wind (may be different for those folks along the Gulf Coast), and is known to be naturally more erratic and should be planned for accordingly. In our areas along the Georgia coast our seabreeze typically hits around 2:30-3:00pm where we can expect wind directions and speeds to shift....therefore we plan our burn strategy accordingly to adjust for the change (or in best case scenarios to be done by this timing!)

2. Wind speed.

This is something more tangible that most people can understand. You can feel it on your front porch if it's a windy day or not! There are actually multiple wind speeds to consider (and things that impact speed), but for simplicity sake we're going to focus on the basic ground level speeds. Again, this is simply the wind blowing less than 20' from the ground (aka, it's literally the wind we can FEEL when we're outside.) The other wind speeds, which are just as important for burn manager's consideration are those at higher altitudes which carry the smoke up and away, which again is important but more difficult to discuss in this article for every level of landowner! 

So why does this matter: if there's no wind, your fire won't move across the site (hopefully that's obvious) but on the contrary if there's too much wind then the fire will either move too quickly and not burn what's supposed to be burned effectively and also increase the risk of the fire escaping your firebreaks due to increased flame lengths. Wind speed is one of the factors that can make your fire go from predictable to erratic. We are talking about average wind speeds, but gusts should be taken into consideration too. If the wind seems to be blowing inconsistently (slow then high bursts and then slow) this also isn't the most ideal situation to implement a burn (especially for new landowners)... so be aware of strong gusty days. 

3. Relative Humidity. (RH) 

This is something we in the South are definitely very familiar with! For those less familiar, this is the amount of moisture in the air, and in the Southeast it is very common for most days to be above 75% humidity! (Honestly, along the coast too it's more like 90%+ most days!) Again, why is this an important consideration? Because the amount of moisture in the air will help determine how effectively the fire will burn. Like with wind speeds, burn managers need to review a multitude of different moisture indicators, but the average landowner can and should review the RH on their own weather apps. So, not that we know what RH is in the basic terms, how can you look into these numbers? Assuming decent wind speed and directions, your next checklist item should be determine the RH for your tract you're wanting to burn. Ideally you want the percent ranges to be between 30%-60%, of course we know in the Southeast it can be difficult to get less than 60% RH so in the end this will not be the breaking factor for you to decide to burn, but realize at higher RH the fire may take longer to complete the burn especially with lower wind speeds. On the contrary though there is a red flag no-burn indicator if your RH goes below 25%! This means that it is incredibly dry out there and the fire can typically grow and consume more quickly than you may be anticipating, increasing the chance for escape. Although again not a no-deal factor within itself... tied with other indicators (especially again wind speed) will definitely go from an "eh" to a "mmmm nope" decision for burning. 

"But what about temperature?!" 

I did not mention temperature today because cool season burns should be burned with less than 60* F, however unless the plants and trees are sprouting new-growth (in pines known as candling) you can also burn in higher temperatures... or perhaps you're attempting a warm-season burn to promote native season grasses in which case temperatures are going to always be above 60. Therefore we focused on the other indicators which also show up on any weather app. 

In all cases, before burning get a burn permit (if applicable in your state) and I highly recommend receiving a personalized burn plan or consultation from your local county foresters/rangers... the men and women who work forest fires daily, and help you determine the best approach to burn your tract. In many cases they will provide burning services to assist you in executing your burn. Be aware though there a few of them and many grounds to be burned, and therefore their list to get burned can be long and it's not typically an in-order, first on first-served basis (although of course they try to get to those who have been waiting a long time first) it simply doesn't work that way when you're waiting for weather factors best for your land. 

If you're like me it can be hard to drop all your prearranged plans to go burn the woods... so any type of advance notice, even tentative, can help!

So as the holiday season approaches, you continue to enjoy your autumn activities and you review your weather app to determine if you can enjoy a front yard tail gate or to take the kids to the county fair.... you can now keep a basic eye on approaching days which might be suitable in adding fire your land.


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