Friendly fire: Prescribed, control burns can benefit farmers, other land owners

Dan Hansen
Once the fire begins burning backfires are lit on all sides so the fire burns back against itself.

APPLETON – Just the thought of a fire can give farmers — especially dairy farmers — nightmares. 

A lightning bolt, a short in the electrical wiring, a spark from a tractor, or any of a number of other causes can quickly destroy a barn and other farm buildings, and can take animals and machinery with it.

While fire can be a deadly enemy, it also can be a friend to farmers and other landowners.

“We need to realize that not all fire is bad,” stressed Jon Kellermann, who’s been a wildland fire and natural resources instructor at Fox Valley Technical College for eight years.

Kellermann, who came to the school after working with the State Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resource Conservation Service and Pheasants Forever, says, “We can utilize fire for many good purposes. We can bring back some of that natural fire that helped oak savannas and other lands thrive.”

He explained that there are a lot of fire dependent species, and fire dependent communities. “Many of those places have not seen fire in a long time, and we need to get the message out to the public that there is good fire and we can use it safely.”

Control burn prep

To demonstrate the constructive uses of wild land fires, Kellermann and his students recently conducted prescribed burns on four 50-foot-square parcels just west of the main Appleton campus.

“This has been an established prairie for many years,” he said. “We manage it by burning, mowing and brush removal. But, it has a higher prevalence of invasive species so it isn’t good quality prairie right now, so we used a herbicide to kill some of those plants, and we have good fuel with a fire brake all around it.”

A skid-steer loader with a rotary mower was used to cut vegetation right down to the soil to create 60-inch fire brakes around the sections to be burned.

The day also provided training for FVTC faculty and staff. “We have machine tool, automotive, horticulture and business instructors becoming wild-land firefighters,” said Kellermann. “We held a classroom session talking about wildlife habitat management, and now we’ll be demonstrating how to put fire on the ground safely.”

Safety is a prime consideration for everyone on the fire crew. Helmets and heavy gloves, long pants and long-sleeve shirts were worn by everyone involved. 

“All clothing must be of non-synthetic material,” Kellermann stressed. “While cotton will burn, it burns slowly, but synthetic material melts to the skin and will stay there, putting heat on the area until it gets scraped off.”

Everyone also was given tools that included, rakes, hoes and axes, and radios were issued to maintain communication at all times with everyone working on the fire.

Starting the burn

Because a slight breeze was coming from the northeast, the fires were started in the southwest corner of each section. Then fires were started on the flanks and the head so the fire burned back on itself.

Several people also were stationed around the perimeter to suppress any fire that might jump the brakes.

On this day, with almost no wind, the smoke went straight up. “In some situations where buildings might be nearby, we may want a little more wind so the smoke dissipates,” Kellerman said.

Kevin Vosters, an admissions specialist at the school, participated in the control burn, and found the activity beneficial. 

“During our in-service training we have the opportunity to visit different programs and experience some of what the students learn. The more I know, the more knowledge I can pass on to potential students,” he said.

The most surprising part of the experience to Vosters was learning how fast fires can come together, and how they surround the whole area. 

“Fire has been used for centuries and is a very useful tool.” he noted. “This area looks devastated now but it will green up in a few days.”

Benefits for farmers

Kellermann stressed that farmers and other landowners can reap significant benefits by conducting controlled burns on portions of their land.

“Some of those in Farm Bill programs like CRP, (Conservation Reserve Program) and EQUIP ((Environmental Quality Incentives Program) have prairie communities that are protecting our soil and water, while also providing wildlife habitat,” Kellermann explained. “We can utilize fire to rejuvenate those areas and even help restore them.”

A small test fire is started in the corner of each parcel opposite the prevailing wind.

Jeremy Hanson, a farm business management instructor at FVTC, who works with students in the classroom and with producers on the farm, sees additional benefits for farmers utilizing controlled burns.

“Most farmers are going to harvest the borderline areas of their fields for bedding or feed, but if that doesn’t happen, a lot of insects will stay in those areas over winter including road ditches and drainage ditches,” he said. 

“If farmers don’t get those harvested, a controlled burn is one way to eliminate invasive plant species and also eliminate places where invasive insects can overwinter.

“For instance, army worms are a problem somewhere in Wisconsin every year, coming into fields from grassy road ditches. If they can use fire to eliminate some of the harmful insects and their habitat, farmers will need fewer inputs to control them if a problem occurs,” he stressed.

Hanson sees a significant advantage to burning rather than just mowing and leaving the vegetation in the field. 

”Mowing doesn’t really kill the plant roots. Mowing is only a temporary solution, and invasive plants, like reed canary grass, will just grow back. Burning is a quick and easy way to control some of the invasive species as long as it’s done safely,” he said.

Hanson says the best time for farmers to conduct a controlled burn is prior to May 10 before everything starts to green up. “The next best time is later in the fall after a couple frosts and vegetation is dying back,” he said.

Landowner service

Fox Valley Technical College is the only school in the state to offer an associate degree in wild fire science. "UW-Stevens Point offers a bachelor’s degree if our students want to further their education education,” said Kellermann.

The Wildland Firefighter program at FVTC offers landowners in Wisconsin low-cost, high quality habitat projects including prescribed burning, burn plan writing, site preparation and maintenance from a fully trained crew at a minimal cost.

The live fire season for the students is typically from mid-March to late May.  “We’ll be running fire five days a week, and we get the students out every day that we can, but our schedule fills up fast,” said Kellermann.

If farmers or other landowners need a controlled burn on their property, they can contact Kellermann by calling 920-225-5901 or by email at