Why We Burn

Why We Burn



Prescribed fire is the intentional application of fire to a specific pre-planned area, under specific environmental conditions, to accomplish planned land management objectives. Without the use of prescribed burning as a management tool, Wisconsin could lose many of its native grassland, wetland and savanna plant communities.

-Wisconsin DNR
WHAT IS PRESCRIBED FIRE                                                               

A prescribed fire, or a controlled burn, is the intentional application of fire to a specific area, under specific environmental conditions and parameters (the prescription), to accomplish planned land management objectives and meet ecological goals.

Prescribed fire simulates a natural process.  Fire is a natural and necessary component of many Wisconsin ecosystems, such as native prairies, oak communities, wetlands, and pine forests. Periodic fire is required for the regeneration and growth of fire-adapted species, as well as maintaining resiliency and system functioning. Where prescribed burning is lacking, Wisconsin is losing its fire-adapted natural communities and many species are declining in abundance. 

Prescribed fire is an essential process for conserving many of Wisconsin’s native ecosystems. Land managers use prescribed burning to assist in the restoration and management of native ecosystems. Fire stimulates native vegetation growth and reproduction, alters vegetation structure, and hinders invasive species encroachment.

Prescribed burning is an established practice among all major state and federal agencies, large nonprofit conservation organizations, private contractors, and landowners who engage in ecosystem restoration and management in the state. Prescribed burning additionally provides valuable training, education, and research opportunities.

What does a controlled burn look like? See here, http://adaptiverestoration.com/whatdoesaburnlooklike

 Learn more about prescribed burning in Wisconsin from a member organization The Nature Conservancy – Wisconsin

Growing season following a burn with high percent cover and flowering abundance (left) versus two seasons following a burn with lower percent cover and flowering abundance (right). Photos by Jeb Barzen

Fire was an integral part of the Wisconsin environment before European settlement. At least half of the state was burned on a regular basis. For thousands of years, wildfires occurred naturally through lightning strikes or were set by Native Americans for the purpose of managing their surrounding environments, much like we strive to do today.

Prescribed burn of 66 acres of restored prairie in Marquette County led by burn boss and board member Jeb Barzen, Private Lands Conservation LLC. Photo by Andrea Weissgerber

Frequent fire played a significant role in the development of many of Wisconsin’s native plant communities. Many plant and animal species now depend on prescribed fire for their continued existence. However, fires have been largely suppressed in Wisconsin in the last 150 years.  

A statewide analysis found many natural areas in the northwest barrens, northeast barrens, and southern half of the state as high priority for management with prescribed fire.

A fundamental mission of the Wisconsin Prescribed Fire Council (WPFC) is to make the use of prescribed fire safer and more accepted for all practitioners and to promote the use of prescribed fire as an essential land management tool in Wisconsin.


Climate change poses a threat to native ecosystems. These threats are not limited to rising global temperatures, but include altered temperature ranges, seasonality, precipitation levels, and increased severity and frequency of major storm events. Confounding threats include increased pressure from invasive species, and habitat degradation, fragmentation and loss from human land use.

Healthy and diverse habitats can better absorb the stresses of a rapidly changing climate. Thus, addressing the effects of climate change is a state-wide priority. WFPC believes that prescribed fire is an essential tool for climate resilience. Furthermore, the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts is working to generate and share information that can foster solutions to climate change in Wisconsin, including the increased use of prescribed fire.

Prescribed fire is an essential tool in preserving Wisconsin’s native plant communities and the diverse assemblage of animals, insects, birds and amphibians they support. In addition to protecting biodiversity and promoting ecosystem resiliency, prescribed fire is critical to maintain the ecosystem functions provided by Wisconsin’s native communities. Fire-adapted ecosystems store large amounts of carbon in the soil, and therefore serve as carbon sinks. Even with prescribed burning, fire-adapted ecosystems sequester more carbon than they emit. Restoring, managing, and preserving native ecosystems can mitigate the rate of carbon concentration rapidly occurring in our atmosphere.Wisconsin’s native ecosystems provide many other direct and indirect ecosystem services including supporting pollinators, managing stormwater, increasing ground water recharge, and controlling invasive species.

Increasing our capacity to implement prescribed fire safely and enhancing the public perception of prescribed fire through cooperation with non-profit organizations, government agencies, the private sector, and private landowners, is at the heart of WPFC’s mission. Increased prescribed fire on Wisconsin’s landscape is a key component in restoring and maintaining climate resiliency for Wisconsin native ecosystems. WPFC’s Government Relations Committee and state agencies are working together to develop nuanced and comprehensive prescribed burning policy that demonstrates statewide support for the safe implementation of this critical tool.

By actively fostering a culture of prescribed burning across the public-private spectrum, we are furthering a landscape approach to resiliency of fire-adaptive natural communities. A landscape approach that reunites a shared vision and goal across multiple ownerships is the only way that fire-adapted systems can be restored and create resiliency in the face of climate change.



Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense). Photo by Andrea Weissgerber

Many of Wisconsin’s native plants developed adaptations to thrive with fire. Prairie grasses and forbs (wildflowers) have deep roots and buds beneath the soil, enabling them to withstand fire. Oak trees have thick bark that is adapted to withstand fire without being top-killed. Many pine species rely on fire for regeneration, either through re-sprouting, fire-activated seeds, or serotinous pine cones. Conversely, shallow-rooted non-native plants succumb to the heat or reduced soil moisture that often follows a fire. Along with mechanical and chemical treatment, prescribed fire is an integral tool used to control invasive species. By removing accumulated thatch (leaf and grass litter) and top-killing invasive brush, fire stimulates the growth of native plant species and maintains heterogenous habitat structure. Prescribed fire also stimulates soil productivity which in turn benefits the entire ecosystem through nutrient cycling.

In the absence of fire, the structure and species composition of a plant community changes. Fire suppression favors the growth of fire-intolerant, shade loving species that crowd out fire-dependent species, and creates ideal environments for invasive species that further reduce species diversity. Maintaining the integrity of fire-adapted plant communities is especially crucial in critically rare ecosystems such as pine or oak barrens, oak savannas, and a variety of grassland ecosystems. For more information on high priority areas for prescribed fire in Wisconsin, check out the Wisconsin Fire Needs Assessment.

Conducting prescribed burns and restoring fire to native landscapes (TNC) ensures their continued integrity and resiliency in the face of climate change and other ecological stressors facing future generations.

Some specific advantages of prescribed burns for plants include:

  • Maintaining the herbaceous structure and/or open nature of fire-adapted plant communities
  • Increasing plant diversity and habitat heterogeneity
  • Restoring and upholding ecological resilience
  • Creating open pockets of bare ground, increasing seed-to-soil contact
  • Reducing competition for slower-growing native trees such as oaks
  • Recycling nutrients from burned fuels back into the soil
  • Reducing the presence of fire-intolerant non-natives
  • Increasing soil carbon content
  • Increasing ground water recharge


Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) sipping nectar from state endangered purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens). Photo by Andrea Weissgerber

Prescribed fire has a profound effect on wildlife by increasing the diversity and quantity of native plant food sources.The wildlife species that benefit most from prescribed fire are those that rely on open habitat in one or more stages of their life cycle. A few examples of these animals are grassland birds, waterfowl, pollinating insects, burrowing mammals and most reptiles. Prescribed burns also help to stimulate flowering herbaceous plants (forbs), a source of nectar for insects, seeds for birds, and forage for white-tailed deer and many other herbivores.

Some specific advantages of prescribed burns for wildlife include:

  • Reducing shrub and tree growth, creating open habitat for upland game and waterfowl
  • Stimulating the growth flowering forbs, which attracts a variety of pollinators, invertebrates, and seed eating birds
  • Improving plant productivity which increases fledging success for grassland-nesting birds
  • Creating heterogenous forest structure, benefiting a range of closed and open woodland species
  • Creating open pockets of bare ground, increasing diversity and richness of ground foraging, seed-eating small mammals and birds


Implementing prescribed fire doesn’t just benefit native ecosystems and combat effects of climate change. It also creates jobs, produces and conserves natural resources we rely on, and can unify disparate groups. Supporting communities, practitioners, creating a unified voice, and providing education on prescribed fire is a core component of the mission of the WPFC.

Effective solutions to land management and implementing prescribed fire safely requires a range of perspectives and cooperation. Prescribed fire is a cultural resource that has been practiced by indigenous communities on ancestral lands for thousands of years. Reciprocity with native landscapes and the people that inhabit them is essential in creating sustainable communities, conserving culturally important species, and promoting climate resilience of fire-adapted ecosystems. Elevating diverse voices and building equitable partnerships strengthens the coalition of the fire community in Wisconsin.


Prescribed burning is one of the least expensive and most environmentally-sound ways to accomplish broadscale land management goals. This holds true for native ecosystems as well as domestic crop and range land. Removing the layer of dead vegetation (“thatch”) ensures better seed-to-soil contact for planting. Prescribed fire increases productivity and can return nutrients into the soil following burning to further enhance the re-establishment of a new forest, crop planting or Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) planting. Forage for livestock can be improved in quality and quantity with timely burning. For instance, protein content increases significantly in many grass species in the growing season after a burn and livestock often prefer to graze on new growth that follows a fire. Prescribed fire in tandem with grazing and crop rotation can greatly increase productivity on agricultural lands.


Prescribed burns differ greatly from wildfires. Prescribed burns are set intentionally after considering the safety of people and property, management objectives, and weather conditions. Wildfires are uncontrolled and unplanned and often occur on days where weather and fuel conditions are primed for the development of dangerous and destructive fires, with the potential to do great harm to people, structures, and natural resources. Rising temperatures and the increased intensity and frequency of summer droughts fuel larger and potentially catastrophic wildfires. Prescribed fire can be an integral tool in reducing wildfire risk by removing hazardous fuels, ladder fuels, reducing fire intensity, and restoring resiliency in areas disrupted by fire suppression.