In Black Hills National Forest, Firefighters Are The Ones Setting The Blazes

Controlled fires, or prescribed burns, refresh the environment and take away the fuel that would feed uncontrolled wildfires.

During the seasons when there is a lower chance of wildfires, forest services all over the United States will conduct controlled burns, also known as prescribed burns or low-intensity burns, in which they create controlled planned fires to maintain the health of the forest and prevent future wildfires. 

Prescribed burns allow for a “natural pruning, it does a cleansing of the forest,” Jason Virtue, a fire officer at the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, told BuzzFeed News. The burns help maintain the “resiliency of the forest so it can sustain fires and [people do] not have to worry about fires taking out thousands and thousands of acres,” he added.

two photos: a forest service worker pouring a container of gasoline onto a pile of forest debris, and another of a service worker walking between several piles of alight forest debris piles
Several piles of wood burning with tall flames, surrounded by snow and pine trees

There are two main types of prescribed burns: One involves lighting fires across a landscape to fortify the ecosystem. The other is pile burning, which is when leaves and other debris are collected and stacked up to be burned. Both burns seek to remove and reduce hazardous fuels like low-growing vegetation that could otherwise accelerate wildfires, as well as minimize the spread of pests and insects, among other benefits. 

Before a burn takes place, specialists write detailed burn plans to consider whether the conditions are safe to conduct a controlled planned fire. They examine the temperature, wind, humidity, moisture of the vegetation, conditions for the dispersal of smoke, and personnel and equipment requirements for safe implementation, according to the US Department of Agriculture. The plans also map out how the fire will be managed and what resources will be needed. 

two side-by-side photos show a close-up photo of flame with heat obscuring the snow and trees in the background, and five forest service workers line up in sweatshirts, hearthats, and sunglasses in front of a four wheeler
Controlled burns take place when conditions are suitable in Black Hills National Forest outside of Hill City, South Dakota, on February 2, 2023.
Left: a close-up picture of flames, Right: a buffalo crossing a field of white snow in Custer State Park

“Safety is the number one thing we’re concerned about,” Virtue said. “Whether it’s our firefighters on the ground implementing the prescribed burn, or the general public, our cooperators.”

Burning improves the overall forest health and allows for natural thinning, which helps reduce ecological competition. “So in turn, fewer trees per acre, resulting in bigger, more fire-resistant trees,” Virtue said. The ash from the fires also turns into fertilizer for the soil, thus providing nutrients for the forest.

“Another benefit is improvised water quality and quantity,” the forest officer said — as long as it’s a controlled, low-intensity fire. “If you have a high-intensity fire, you’re gonna have issues,” he said. Large, uncontrolled wildfires, like the ones seen in California over the last several years, can destroy vegetation that would otherwise absorb water while also altering terrain conditions, ultimately increasing the risk of flash floods in the fire’s aftermath.

Forest workers in Black Hills National Forest conduct controlled burns outside of Hill City, South Dakota, on February 2, 2023.
A close up of a raging fire with orange and black flames shooting up 10-15 feet and forest debris crumbling in the heat
A massive pile of downed trees and debris that spans an estimated 50 feet with flames reaching up into the sky surrounded by snow and a forest

How often are prescribed burns done? When it comes to larger landscape burns, Virtue explained, it depends on the species of tree you’re dealing with. For ponderosa pine, which Virtue said makes up a majority of the 1.2 million acres of Black Hills National Forest, the forest service could probably conduct a large burn in a specific area once “every five years or 10 years.” In other forests, burning an area may only be able to happen once every 25 years.

In contrast, pile burns are much more common, with thousands conducted in the Black Hills National Forest alone each year, according to the US Department of Agriculture website. 

Since the burn windows are often in the spring or the fall, after the busy summer months of wildfire season, it can be demanding on the firefighters.

A grid of forest service workers wearing protective gloves, firestarter, and safety hats with the US Forest Service Logo on the front

“It can be taxing to go from a pretty robust busy fire season and then jumping into the prescribed fire,” Virtue said. To mitigate this, the forest service tries to “keep folks rotating out, so it’s not the same core group of people doing the same tasks, but just trying to give folks a break where possible.”

For this photo essay, BuzzFeed News sent photographers Jenn Ackerman and Tim Gruber to document the forest service and firefighters conducting controlled burns in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota.

A forest service worker covers their face from the smoke and walks through a landscape dotted with burning piles as the light catches on the smoke and obscures the surrounding forest
A towering sculpture of Smokey The Bear sitting in the snow and created from scraps of wood, wearing a wooden hat that says “Rangers” in Hill City, South Dakota next to a sign that says “Please help prevent forest fires”
A closely cropped photo of a flame reaching up into the sky with bright yellows and deep oranges as it turns the wood pile below into white and gray charcoal
a forest service worker walks toward the camera through ankle-deep snow among piles of burning wood
Forest service workers in Black Hills National Forest help to extiguish fires outside of Hill City, South Dakota, February 2, 2023.
The last dregs of a fire—the top of a pile of crumbling charcoal in grays and whites and underneath peaks through flames and wood glowing in orange

In the mountains of South Dakota,

the forest workers are the ones setting the fires.

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