Prescribed burns: frequently asked questions

What is a prescribed burn?

Prescribed burns, also called controlled or planned burns, are carried out by planning and carefully lighting fires in a predetermined area under specific weather conditions to achieve a desired outcome. A prescribed burn is conducted according to a 'burn plan' containing specific parameters, known as a ‘prescription’. These parameters include weather, fuel moisture, fire intensity and detailed information about the site such as control lines, lighting procedures, unique features, and overall objectives. Once a plan is written, it is peer reviewed by fire officers and ecologists. Once endorsed, fire managers continue to take field measurements of moisture and monitor the weather conditions until the burn area is within the plan’s prescription before implementing. Prescribed burns have become a valuable management tool in the protection of assets (natural, cultural, and/or built), our rural landscape and our water supply. They can promote ecological diversity, and improve fire fighter safety by reducing fuels in strategic areas.

How do we determine if any area needs a prescribed burn?

The Strategic Bushfire Management Plan for the ACT is the territory’s framework for the efficient, effective and comprehensive management of fire and fire-related activities for protecting human life, property, assets and the environment. To meet the requirements of this plan a Regional Fire Management Plan has been developed by ACT Parks and Conservation Service (PCS) detailing the implementation actions between 2014 and 2019. Generally, if an area is in need of fuel management and slashing, grazing, and/or physical removal are not deemed appropriate, then the use of prescribed burns will be utilised.

What activities are planned for this year?

The ACT Parks and Conservation Service has a yearly program of work called the Bushfire Operations Plan. Activities that help manage bushfire risk which have been pre-identified in the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan and the Regional Fire Management Plan make up the bulk of the annual Bushfire Operations Plan. The BOP sets out work and activities that help manage bushfire risk annually.  This plan is available online and maps for each burn are on the interactive web map.

What standards are used to determine if a fuel treatment is necessary?

Bushfire Management Standards have been prepared under the Strategic Bushfire Management Plan for the ACT. The standards detail the measurable outcomes required under the current and ongoing management policies and procedures. The ACT Emergency Services Commissioner is responsible for approval of these standards. The Territory has been classified into zones such as inner or outer asset protection zones, each with specific fuel load standards, which are dependent on fuel types.

How does ACT Parks and Conservation Service assess fuel loads?

PCS has over 700 permanent fuel plots in the territory that are used to assess fuel loads.  The Service uses Victoria’s Overall Fuel Hazard Guide to assess fuel loads at the various fuel plots. This guide takes into consideration surface, elevated and bark fuels and then calculates an overall fuel load in tonnes per hectare.

How does ACT Parks and Conservation Service determine if it is suitable to implement a prescribed burn on a given day?

PCS uses a decision support tool called the Prescribed Burn Decision Support Tool. Using ISO 31000 Risk Management – Principles and guidelines, the tool provides a risk framework for consistent and quantifiable decision-making for prescribed burns. The decision support tool is utilised prior to each prescribed burn to assist fire managers in determining whether it is suitable to implement a burn on any given day. This process is repeated each day if the burn is scheduled to continue. The tool takes into consideration current and predicted weather, long-term conditions, fuel loads, control lines, proximity to populations, and the vulnerability of built, natural and cultural assets.  A risk level is then assigned along with risk mitigation advice. This information is then presented to the Incident Controller, along with other intelligence, to decide whether the burn should be carried out on the proposed day.

How does ACT Parks and Conservation Service manage smoke?

Every effort is made to conduct burns in weather conditions that minimise the impact of smoke on residents. The approved burn plan considers weather conditions and likely smoke direction. To minimise smoke a number of actions are taken including implementing burns when fuels are sufficiently cured and/or under weather conditions that support lift and dispersal of smoke away from residents and sensitive sites. Fire managers are constantly monitoring weather to ensure that burns will not adversely affect the community.

While it is not possible to completely remove the effect of smoke on the public, PCS is committed to improving our processes and we are currently working with the Victorian Government and the Bureau of Meteorology on a national programme to manage the effect of smoke in our region.

If I’m sensitive to smoke, what can I do?

Prescribed burns generally occur in spring or autumn but can occur in other parts of the year if suitable conditions exist.  We recommend that residents keep up-to-date with prescribed burn scheduling. There are a number of ways to stay informed; you can subscribe to regular updates by emailing communityengagement@act.gov.au , subscribe to the RSS Feed or follow us on Twitter.

ACT Parks and Conservation Service works closely with the Asthma Foundation, visit the foundations Asthma & Bushfire Smoke page for Tips to stay safe and well if there is bushfire smoke in your area.

If I see smoke what should I do?

It is common for flame and smoke to be visible following the completion of the burn, which can be caused by stumps and heavy logs in the interior of the burn. It is important to continue to allow fuels to be consumed in order for the fire hazard to be reduced, and this may include when burns appear to be unattended. Prior to leaving a prescribed burn, PCS undertakes a full risk assessment to determine whether it is appropriate to leave the burn unattended. For this to occur, the burn is required to be extinguished up to 20 metres around the perimeter to reduce the risk of escape. Fire managers within PCS will revisit the site to monitor the burn until no smoke is visible for 24 hours. If something looks out of the ordinary, please call Triple Zero (000).