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Prescribed Fire

Maintaining fire influenced communities, can reduce wildfire risk and improve habitat for rare species.
Prescribed Fire

Table of Contents

Practice Description

Prescribed Fire is the planned use of fire in a particular place and time, under established conditions and safety requirements to accomplish resource management goals. Prescribed fire improves habitat for a variety of wildlife and native plants and restores natural communities dependent on fire by creating subtle changes in vegetation structure, composition, and function. A prescribed fire is carefully planned and applied by skilled practitioners to meet resource management and safety objectives.

Prescribed Fire is implemented only after completing a planning process that accounts for crew safety, environmental safeguards, smoke management, air quality impacts, and protection of public safety and property. Prescribed Fire requires a good working relationship with neighbors, the local fire department, DCR Bureau of Forestry and Fire Control, environmental regulators, and other fire practitioners working within a shared airshed and geographic area.

Goals and Ecological Processes

Fire is a natural disturbance and plays an important role in maintaining the health of many ecological communities and wildlife habitats. Prescribed Fire is a way to return fire to a natural landscape without the same risks as wildfire. It may be undertaken to create a mosaic of diverse habitats for native plants and wildlife, thereby sustaining biological diversity, contributing to ecological function, and strengthening resilience at a landscape level to stressors associated with climate change, such as temperature variations, changes in precipitation patterns, extreme winds, storm events, extended drought periods, and wildfire events.

When properly and safely applied, Prescribed Fire promotes healthy ecosystems and habitats and allows native species to successfully adapt and thrive over time. Prescribed Fire maintains desired canopy gaps in forests and woodlands, removes accumulated leaf litter and the buildup of matted plant material (often described as thatch), which inhibits germination and growth of light sensitive plants. Prescribed Fire controls shade tolerant brush and small trees and many invasive plants. It increases light penetration to the ground, warms the soil, and favors germination and establishment of native plants including numerous fire-dependent plants. It is known to stimulate plant growth, fruit and mast production, and plant fungal associations within the soil increasing nutrient uptake and plant tolerance and persistence under harsh growing conditions. Prescribed Fire may also reduce hazardous fuels (dead and living flammable vegetation), which reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire and insect outbreaks, thereby creating a more resilient landscape.

Fire has been a part of the Massachusetts landscape for thousands of years and continues to play a vital role in maintaining many wildlife habitats and fire-influenced natural communities. Historic fire regimes are linked with drier climatic periods as well as human activity on the landscape. Under drier climatic conditions, lightning fires spread without barriers to movement over large landscape blocks. Before European arrival, Indigenous Peoples used fire for many purposes including land clearing for swidden agriculture, improving ease of travel, driving game, increasing forest products and plants used for food, medicinal or ceremonial purposes. Indigenous People also used fire to improve communication among tribes and facilitate effective defense of their communities. There are many references by fire ecologists and anthropologists to historic fire-maintained landscapes and the use of fire by Indigenous Peoples in New England. Following European settlement, forest conversion for firewood consumption, building supplies, industries such as charcoaling, and agriculture lead to a decline in the use of fire. Over time, many cleared areas began the process of reforestation.

During the early 20th century and up until recently, fire exclusion from forested natural lands was general policy throughout Massachusetts and the entire United States. Land managers thought that fire interfered with forest development and brought destruction. Fire exclusion resulted in the decline of numerous species, the buildup of heavy and often hazardous fuels, and the potential for subsequent wildfires to be more intense, burn quickly, and endanger nearby human communities. As more people move into rural settings, known as the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) - the area where human development meets undeveloped wildlands, it becomes increasingly challenging to protect people from wildfires and smoke impacts. Prescribed fire helps reduce the risk of severe wildfire, reduces surface and ladder fuels that contribute to increased risk of wildfire. Prescribed fire helps reduce potential impacts caused by smoke by burning when weather and fuel conditions minimize smoke and create good lift. It also improves the ability for firefighters to safely respond to and effectively suppress wildfires.

Today, tribal partners use fire to promote cultural practices and private and public landowners in Massachusetts use prescribed fire for resource management purposes. Exactly what happens during and after a prescribed fire depends on the landscape, its habitat characteristics, the severity and intensity of the fire, the frequency of recurring fire events, and the species involved. A fire event always sparks a succession of changes as plants, microbes, fungi, and other organisms respond and plants and animals begin to recolonize the recently burned landscape. While many targeted plants and animals may react quickly, other animals may take longer to return to an area and may operate at different time scales and respond in different ways. Protecting and managing larger landscape units that support diverse habitats and microclimatic conditions, such as oak and pitch pine woodlands, scrub oak thickets, heathlands and native grasslands associated with wetlands such as coastal plain ponds will help maintain variability and a diversity of habitats for species to adapt to disturbance events, find refugia and needed connectivity to other important habitats. This allows wildlife to acclimate to changes, strengthening biodiversity over time.

Target Habitats and Species

In Massachusetts, we are fortunate to have wildlife habitats and natural communities that have evolved with fire and are best maintained with periodic burning, including areas managed for wildlife and specialized habitats that are home to state-and federally listed rare, endangered, or threatened species. Numerous habitat types benefit from prescribed burning including Sandplain Grasslands and Heathlands, Barrens, Oak Forests and Woodlands, Maritime Woodlands, Calcareous Wetlands, Coastal Plain Ponds, Marshes and Wet Meadows. See individual habitat descriptions for more information on fire’s role within these habitat types and the many natural communities found within. Well over 40 natural communities are documented as fire influenced in Massachusetts and benefit from prescribed fire restoration practices.

Fire continues to play a fundamental role in shaping a patchwork of open habitats, shrublands, woodlands, and forested communities across the Massachusetts landscape. For example, the barrens vegetation found on glacial deposits of deep and excessively well drained sand and gravel tend to be associated with relatively short fire return intervals. Many shrubs such as low-bush blueberry sprout quickly after fire from fire resistant roots and underground stems and branches. Pitch pine and oak trees have thick protective bark, and wildflowers and certain shrubs have heat resistant seeds that break their long dormancy after fire. Several of these specialized habitats occur primarily in coastal areas or farther inland in association with major river valleys, on ridgetops and forested slopes with shallow soils, or in specialized wetlands.

Prescribed fire improves habitat for huntable wildlife such as Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, and American Woodcock. Black Bear, White-tailed Deer, and New England Cottontail benefit from the increases in fruit, mast, and palatable browse created after periodic fires. A multitude of declining and rare species such as Whip-poor-will, Grasshopper Sparrow, New England Blazing Star, American Chaffseed, Purple Milkweed, and Frosted Elfin Butterfly benefit from prescribed burning. Over 40% of the MESA-listed plant and animal species in Massachusetts benefit from the conditions created and maintained by fire. Current research indicates that periodic burning may also help control plant and animal parasites and pathogens.

Associated Practices

  • Fuel Breaks and Forest Thinning: In areas where flammable vegetation has grown too dense to safely implement prescribed fire or suppress wildfires, mechanical treatments may be needed as part of the restoration. Treatments often include harvesting and removing some trees and mowing or mulching flammable understory vegetation. Fuel breaks are relatively open areas where the vegetation is managed to reduce fire intensity, flame length, and rate of spread, in order to provide a defensible space to hold and suppress fire. Thinning of overstory trees and maintaining widely spaced overstory trees will reduce the contact among tree crowns, thereby reducing the ability of fire to spread through the forest canopy. Mowing or mulching flammable tall shrubs or young trees in the understory helps reduce the fuel volume by removing fuel ladders into the forest canopy and breaking up the vertical and horizontal continuity of highly combustible vegetation such as scrub oak, white pine, and pitch pine, making the initial prescribed burns much safer. When forestry practices are coordinated with prescribed fire planning, it allows for the strategic placement of fuel breaks and future fire breaks and improves the safety of prescribed burns. See the practice fact sheets for tree cutting and mowing/mulching.
  • Fire Break Construction/Maintenance: Firebreaks are defined as a natural or constructed barrier to movement of fire used as a control line from which to work or stop fires. A fire break may consist of open water, existing paved areas, bare soil, or low growing managed vegetation. The width and length of a fire break is dependent on the flammability of vegetation within the prescribed fire unit, the slope, and soil type. Efforts should be made to locate fire breaks to avoid surface erosion, runoff, sedimentation, and disturbance to fragile resources. Maintenance of vegetated breaks (often referred to as soft breaks) may consist of periodic mowing of shrubs, small trees, grasses, sedges, and wildflowers. See the practice fact sheet for mowing/mulching.
  • Invasive Plant Control: This practice includes selective treatment of a particular species pre- and post-prescribed fire to address invasive plants and impediments to restoration efforts. It may involve a combination of treatments and involve chemical control, mechanical removal, or pulling out or weeding of small populations of undesired vegetation. See practice fact sheet for Invasive Plant Control.
  • Wildlife Control: In the early stages of restoration, it may be necessary to address strategies to control or reduce impacts of wildlife on target vegetation including over-browse of vegetation by white-tailed deer or flooding by beaver of hydrologically sensitive wetlands such as fens, which causes the displacement of characteristic fen vegetation by cattails and common reed. See practice fact sheet for Wildlife Control.


Prescribed Fire requires careful planning, permitting, and implementation. Knowledge and assessment of vegetation and fuel loads, weather, and regional climatic conditions, as well as detailed planning and implementation are critical to ensuring safety and avoiding impacts to air, water, soil, and sensitive natural resources. For the best results, a prescribed fire plan should be a companion to an overall resource management plan for the property. Whether the prescribed fire plan is a companion to a forest stewardship plan, habitat restoration plan, or preserve stewardship plan, setting clear long-term goals and objectives related to prescribed fire in the context of the overall restoration and management intent for the property is important. Often, a team of experts are brought together in the initial restoration phases of planning, and that team may include a restoration ecologist, fire ecologist, botanist, consulting or state forester, state wildlife habitat biologist, and on-site land stewards. They work together to discuss options, evaluate on-site conditions, and help answer questions about restoration priorities and prescribed fire. This team contributes toward comprehensive resource management plans and prescribed fire plans which prioritize resource goals and help set clear and realistic objectives related to prescribed fire and other restoration actions.

Prescribed Fire Planning

Before initiating any prescribed fire, a prescribed fire plan and appropriate environmental permits must be in place for a given property. The prescribed fire plan incorporates basic site information, characterizes vegetation and fuel loads, outlines the objectives and desired outcomes of the burn, describes potential resources at risk and hazards in and near the prescribed fire project area. The plan sets the parameters for a desired range of environmental and weather conditions at the time of the prescribed fire, outlines the parameters for smoke management and monitoring, and determines the crew and equipment necessary to complete the burn.

MassWildlife and many federal and state agencies follow the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s guidance on prescribed fire planning and implementation and that guidance may be found at NWCG Standards for Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation | NWCG . This is an important guiding document along with NWCG guidance related to the prescribed fire complexity rating. Before embarking on any prescribed fire project, it is important to understand your agency or organization’s individual standards, policies, and guidance for prescribed fire, and your capacity to use prescribed fire safely for resource benefits into the future.

Permits and Permissions

There are numerous federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and procedures that are applicable to prescribed fire. Open burning is regulated by several provisions in the Massachusetts General Laws (M.G.L) and associated regulations in the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR). Two laws, apply to all prescribed fires in Massachusetts, while other relevant laws may apply in certain cases (Table 1 below).

Table 1. Massachusetts Laws and Regulations Governing Open Burning

M.G.L. Chapter and Sections



Applicability (see section II.C for Permit guidelines)

c. 48 § 13

Fires, Fire Departments and Fire Districts

527 CMR 1

Local permit required for all burns.

c. 111 §§ 31C, 122, 142A

Public Health

310 CMR 7.07

MassDEP Air Quality permit required for all burns.

c. 131A

Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (MESA)

321 CMR 10

Management plan and MassWildlife Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program (NHESP) letter for burns in priority habitat.

c. 30 §§ 61 – 62H

Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA)

301 CMR 11

MEPA review required only if thresholds exceeded

c. 131 § 40

Wetlands Protection Act (WPA)

310 CMR 10

Only applies if burn or associated actions (e.g., firebreak construction) alter resource area or buffer zone. 

c. 132 §§ 41 – 45

Forest Cutting Practices Act (FCPA)

304 CMR 11

Only applies if forest cutting is required in addition to burning. 

In addition to the state laws and regulations described above, there may be federal permits and compliance needed to satisfy any applicable federal review, permits, and compliances. Prescribed fire managers must ensure that this permitting and compliance is completed well in advance (generally 60 days prior to the anticipated start date) of any on-the-ground activities related to prescribed fire.

Prescribed Fire Frequency and Seasonality

Fire frequency is difficult to determine in certain habitats, especially if fire has been excluded from an area for many years (in some cases over 100 years) and a variety of land uses have impacted soils, hydrology, and vegetation composition and structure. In the absence of fire in dry forests such as pitch pine and oak forests, communities tend to lose biological diversity and become more vulnerable to large conflagrations. Therefore, prescribed fire is considered an important tool to return fire, begin the process of restoring fire’s ecological role, and managing the risk of uncharacteristically severe wildfires to natural resources and nearby human communities. In the initial phases of restoration, the interval between fires may be higher to reduce hazardous fuels and restore vegetation.

Whether to use growing-season or dormant-season burns is dependent upon the specific goals and objectives of the burn, time-of-year restrictions for sensitive species, and other resource constraints. An increase in native warm season grasses can be achieved with spring and early growing season burns, reduction in invasive woody vegetation can be achieved with growing season burns; and dormant season burns can be useful for reducing thatch and build-up of heavy surface fuels. Burning during a variety of seasons can help achieve restoration goals and maximize biodiversity.

Table 2.  Range of Fire Frequencies and Severity in Targeted Habitat Types

Habitat Type


Fire Frequency Range – Years

Fire Severity Range

Sandplain Grassland and Heathland

Coastal & Inland

1 – 5, grass

5 – 8, heath

Low – Moderate


Coastal and Inland

2 – 10

Low – Moderate

Oak Forest and Woodland


2 – 15

Low – Moderate

Marsh/Wet Meadow


2 – 5

Low – Moderate

Calcareous Wetlands: Fens & Marshes


2 – 5


Acidic Fens


2 – 5


Coastal Plain Pond/Shore

Coastal & CT Valley

3 – 10


Maritime Grassland, Shrubland, Woodland


2 – 4, grass

5 – 10, shrub/wood

Low – Moderate

Coastal Beach and Dune Complex


2 – 20

Low – Moderate  

Atlantic White Cedar Wetland

Coastal & Inland

5 – 200 +

Low – High

Mixed Coniferous Forest Hemlock – White Pine


100 – 200 +


Prescribed Fire Implementation

Prescribed Fire implementation should be guided by practitioners trained in fire use and vegetation management and as authorized in burn plans and permits. All crews have specialized wildland fire training. Every prescribed fire plan has specific objectives and prescription parameters that must be met, and there are a limited number of days throughout the year that will meet all the plan’s criteria to safely conduct the prescribed burn. The prescribed fire team must be prepared to move quickly to meet these opportunities, and have all planning, permits, and site prep completed prior to burning. Many notifications are necessary prior to a prescribed fire, and it’s important to ensure permitters, major stakeholders, local fire departments, fire management partners, neighbors, and smoke sensitive downwind resources are informed.

Once on site, the prescribed burn boss and crew complete a size up of the planned burn area to ensure fire breaks and site conditions are ready, and on-site weather and fuel conditions are within prescription parameters as determined in the prescribed fire plan. A pre-burn crew briefing is held by the burn boss which covers operational procedures for the day, safety considerations, and the plans for ignition, holding, and mop up. The weather forecast and potential problems or erratic fire behavior are discussed along with plans to communicate and manage these elements. Anticipated hazards, contingencies, and safety procedures are addressed, and crew assignments are made.

The prescribed burn team always conducts a test fire before starting general ignitions. The test fire may be relatively small to multiple acres in size within representative fuels and in a location where the fire may be easily suppressed – should the burn boss decide not to proceed. The prescribed burn boss will take into consideration smoke dispersal, fire behavior, and current and predicted weather for the day. When and if the team decides to proceed, on-site weather, smoke, and fire behavior are monitored periodically throughout the day and communicated to the team. The team also observes how the smoke column develops, smoke moves within the project area, and potential smoke impacts to downwind sensitive resources. Effective communication is critical to maintaining a safe burn and communication with the local fire chief is essential to assessing downwind smoke impacts. Prescribed fire crews use two-way radios to communicate important information such as potential hazards, convey unexpected weather changes, report erratic fire behavior, and coordinate between squads and special teams.

After ignitions and holding are completed, the mop-up phase ensures that fire cannot spread outside the control lines. A mop-up plan details how far into the unit all smoke should be extinguished after the burn is completed, the personnel assigned to patrol the burn unit, the frequency and duration of patrols. And when the burn is declared out.

For more information on ignition, holding, suppression and mop up methods, ignition devices, as well as hand tools, personal protective equipment, engines, and suppression tools used on prescribed fire, see the resource links listed below. Prescribed fire is a very specialized activity requiring safety at all levels of operation. Equipment used on the fireline must be reliable and in good working condition. When getting started, it is important to reach out to active prescribed fire partners, to learn more about essential equipment and share knowledge and limited resources.

Additional Resources

Prescribed Fire Management Handbook (main text only)

Prescribed Fire Management Handbook (appendices only)

Burning for Wildlife

North Atlantic Fire Science Exchange

Northeast Region Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy 

NWCG Standards for Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation

Prescribed Fire Basics

Southern Fire Exchange Network: Ignition Devices for Prescribed Burning

U.S. Department of Agriculture: Introduction to Prescribed Fire in Southern Ecosystems

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