Fire in South Dakota: CRP and Grassland Burning Rules
South Dakota ranchers who utilize pasture burning should be aware of recent advancements in prescribed fire education, planning, and options for implementation.
By: Pete Bauman, SDSU Extension, Range Field Specialist
Landowners who plan to begin or continue utilizing prescribed fire on CRP and other planted grasslands or native rangelands in South Dakota should be aware of recent advancements in prescribed fire education, planning, and options for implementation. Through various partnerships and cooperative efforts, landowners now have improved options to attend workshops or receive advice on fire use. Perhaps the most important advancement in the fire use arena is the new services that SD NRCS is providing for landowners planning to utilize prescribed fire for mid-term CRP management.
Over the last decade, NRCS, Pheasants Forever, The Nature Conservancy, and South Dakota State University through a consortium known as the Prairie Coteau Habitat Partnership (The Partnership) have been working to provide improvements to landowner access to fire planning and implementation resources. One of the main bottlenecks producers have experiencing is lack of access to professionals willing to guide them in prescribed fire planning. Many producers have prescribed fire written into their CRP conservation plans, but few were getting the necessary support from their local conservation offices because NRCS staff lacked training and job duty direction in regard to assisting producers in fire planning; causing frustration on both sides of the desk. At the same time, Farm Services Agency (FSA) requires landowners to have a qualified burn plan prior to burning CRP, adding additional layers of responsibility. Landowners found themselves having to independently seek out advice on fire planning with very little guidance. As a result, very little prescribed fire was being accomplished on CRP.
In 2012, the Partnership evaluated FSA and NRCS standards for prescribed burning on CRP and other USDA program grasslands. During this evaluation, we recommended several modifications to NRCS fire program standards regarding allowable firebreaks, firebreak maintenance, vegetation options, fire planning and weather parameters, and safety precautions. Once these modifications were approved, the Partners developed a user-friendly landowner-based burn plan template that could be utilized by landowners, NRCS staff, and fire practitioners (such as local volunteer fire departments) to implement a safe and effective prescribed burn. The partners also developed a joint-training protocol for landowners and NRCS staff focused on teaching the basics of prescribed fire planning. The NRCS then developed guidelines and updated Job Approval Authority for staff based upon review of the new standards, planning documents, and course curriculum. This greatly improving the agency’s ability to assist landowners in prescribed fire planning for mid-contract management on CRP or other program lands.
After review of the new process, SD FSA acknowledged that this system would meet its requirement that producers provide a qualified burn plan prior to implement prescribed burning on CRP. In 2013, the Partnership trained nearly 150 individuals five NRCS/Landowner/VFD training sessions in Yankton, Watertown, Huron, Sisseton, and Leola. In March 2014, 70 individuals participated in trainings in Winner, Rapid City, and Lemmon. These trainings will continue to be offered during the early spring in several locations across the state.
The process for utilizing this new system is fairly simple. The first step is that the NRCS staffer is required to attend a planning training session to become qualified to assist landowners in prescribed fire planning. Although not necessarily required, this training was developed by the partners to focus on landowner education and responsibilities as well, and it is strongly encouraged that landowners attend a training prior to implement a burn. The training protocol is designed for the landowner, the NRCS staffer, and the fire practitioner to work jointly on developing a safe and effective fire plan.
Roles and Responsibilities:
By crafting the process as we have, the Partnership has replicated key aspects of professional prescribed fire planning. While very few staffers are considered fire experts, their work in partnership with the landowner is to assist the landowner in understanding his or her role as the main person responsible for the fire. Basic responsibilities are as follows:
- START EARLY: Due to training schedules, staff availability, and limited fire practitioner options, it may take up to a year to plan for a prescribed fire. To ensure that staff and practitioners (like VFDs) will have time to assist, landowners should begin this process during the summer prior to burning the following spring.
- Attend training.
- Fill out fire plan accurately and to the best of his/her ability.
- Work with NRCS staff or other qualified individual to review the fire plan.
- Prepare the land with firebreaks and other needs.
- Secure necessary equipment.
- Implement the fire and/or secure a qualified fire practitioner, company, or fire department to conduct the burn.
- A critical part of this process is that the landowners themselves are responsible for ensuring the accuracy of the fire plan and maps.
- Attend training prior to assisting landowners.
- Review fire plan for completeness of content.
- Make recommendations on improvements if necessary.
- Sign plan as complete and that all required components have been addressed.
- It is not the NRCS staffer’s responsibility to ensure accuracy of the information; rather it is his/her responsibility to assist the landowner in understanding the importance of accurate planning for ecological objectives and safety.
- Assist landowner in submission of qualified plan to FSA for review and acceptance.
- Work with landowner on planning and accuracy, paying particular attention to resources and weather parameters
- Follow the FSA-accepted burn prescription.
The Fire Plan:
- Fire plans come in various shapes and sizes, but generally all fire plans adhere to the following basic categories:
- Title page / review and approval
- Unit name / ID
- Legal location
- Fuel type / fuel load
- Area description
- Unit description
- Firebreak Descriptions
- Expected Fire Behavior
- Weather Prescription
- Special Considerations
- Emergency / burn contacts
- Personnel needs
- Equipment needs
- Operations plans: Ignition, patrol, mop-up
- Smoke management plan
- Safety plan: communications
- Medical plan
- Pre / post burn report
- Go / no-go pre-burn check list
- General contacts
- Smoke impacts / sensitive areas
- Staging / resources
- Escape routes / safety zones
A well-written and well executed prescribed fire plan satisfies South Dakota law in regard to due diligence and negligence. The Partnership drew heavily from NRCS burn plan requirements when drafting the new landowner friendly burn plan, retaining all necessary NRCS components while organizing the plan in step-by-step, user friendly arrangement that also includes an example plan provided as a template. The key to the ‘prescription’ is that fire must be planned for and carried out under specific parameters identified in the plan.
Deviation from those parameters, although sometimes warranted and acceptable, must be documented. What this means to the landowner is that a burn plan can be modified on the day of the burn if conditions are such that a change in the plan improves safety and security. An example would be a burn that is planned for a north wind, but prior to the burn a neighbor disks the crop field to the north, making a south wind more practical. These types of modifications are acceptable as long as all other factors are considered (safety, smoke, resources, etc.). Modifications should always be recorded and initialed the day of the burn by the person in charge.
South Dakota landowners implementing fire in CRP are encouraged to use the NRCS template plan. This plan can also be easily utilized by anyone preparing to burn other types of grasslands or rangelands. Regardless of the plan template utilized, only lands NRCS or FSA program lands require the validation process described above. Landowners implementing prescribed fire on approved CRP or other USDA project lands may qualify for cost-sharing to offset the expense of burning. Landowners should inquire at their local NRCS/FSA office on details of burn plan approval, planning assistance, and cost share.
Landowners burning CRP must have the fire completed by the FSA spring burn cut-off date of May 15th.
Landowners and others wishing to obtain the template burn plan and example burn plan or those who wish to view the materials presented at the 2014 trainings sessions can visit the South Dakota NRCS Range and Pasture webpage and scroll down to the ‘South Dakota Prescribed Burning’ section.