There are several ecosystem types which require fire for regeneration as well as those which, after years of fire exclusion (thanks to the success and influence of Smokey the Bear) have become unhealthy and pose a wildfire threat due to the fuel load build up. Stands of trees will become stressed by overcrowding, species dependent on fire will start to disappear and an excess of flammable materials present becomes a real and dangerous threat. This is when the right fire, at the right time, closely monitored and controlled by knowledgeable, trained professionals can be very beneficial. Prescribed burns can safely reduce the hazardous fuel load build up, control the spread of invasive plants and pests, provide forage and habitat for wildlife, improve habitat for threatened and endangered species, aid in cycling nutrients, promote healthy growth of trees, understory and herbaceous plants while protecting human communities from destructive wildfires.
The U.S. Forest service manages controlled burns to benefit natural resources as well as reduce the risk of future wildfires. The Forest Service may also manually thin overgrown areas which prepares them for possible return of natural fire cycles while lessening the fuel load and potential for spread to undesirable areas. A “burn plan” is developed by specialists within the agency; the plans identify ideal conditions under which the best results will be achieved for the ecosystem of concern. Temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, vegetation moisture levels and smoke dispersal are all considered when developing the burn plan, these factors could affect the efficacy and safety of the prescribed burn and must be continuously evaluated during planning. On-site conditions may differ from those outlined in the plan, so it must be a living, evolving document capable of being adjusted to produce the best results and implemented by trained, experienced individuals.