Feel the (Prescribed) Burn

Using Fire as a Tool to Maintain Our Battlefields
Prescribed fire near the Brawner Farm at Manassas National Battlefield Park in November 2019.

Prescribed fire near the Brawner Farm at Manassas National Battlefield Park in November 2019.

NPS / Jonathan Shafer

As the summer season kicks into full gear, many of us might be going to the beach, catching some rays, and overall spending our free time taking advantage of the season before fall turns into winter. As night falls or stomachs hunger, we also might find ourselves gathered around a campfire or firepit. These moments spent around the flames can warm our bodies and cook our food, but also ignite joy and camaraderie. Campfires served similar purposes for the soldiers who were involved in the early wars that shaped our nation — when so much was dim and dreary, these fires could give them light, heat, a morale boost and sustenance.

Thus, we know that fire is not always destructive. In fact, since 1985, the National Park Service (NPS) has used prescribed fires as a tool at battlefield sites for:

  • Better maintaining their wartime appearances,  
  • Combating invasive vegetation species,  
  • Reducing hazard fuel accumulations (to help prevent destructive fires),  
  • Promoting suitable environmental conditions for desired and healthy plant and wildlife communities, and/or  
  • Opening up forests for recreation, such as trail access.

Watch this quick video to hear more about the benefits of prescribed burns at battlefields from past superintendent of Manassas National Battlefield Park, Brandon Bies.

So, let’s explore a few instances when and where NPS has, in the words of our most recent Super Bowl halftime performer — Usher — “let it burn” (responsibly, of course!).

The Right Conditions, the Right Cost

Whether you call it a prescribed fire, prescribed burn, planned fire, controlled burn, or controlled fire — they’re all referring to the same thing — several factors must align before the flames are lit. With public and firefighter safety being top of mind, the timing of the fire is very much dependent on weather conditions being within the required wind, temperature, and relative humidity parameters. Therefore, the matter of WHEN these fires occur can shift based on these variables.

Being that these fires are prepared in advance, or “prescribed,” they are meant to tackle specific objectives within the targeted site. Those planning the fire — or creating the prescription — will consider the fuel source to be used, the size of the site and the precise environmental conditions under which it will burn, as well as the conditions through which the fire can be suppressed.

And if you’re curious why the answer to battlefield landscape and natural resource management challenges has often been fire, it’s important to note that prescribed burns are typically the most cost-effective method of maintaining historic landscapes.

In the Beginning...

Saratoga National Historical Park, with assistance from fire personnel at the regional office in Boston and University of Massachusetts students and scientists, held research burns during the spring of 1985. Their objectives: See if these fires were effective in retarding shrub and tree development in open fields and shrub lands and use them to develop and assess site-specific fuel models and burn prescriptions. To gain a more thorough and accurate understanding, research burns continued in the fall of 1985 and spring of 1986. From this work, it was gathered that prescribed fire can be used safely and effectively to maintain open fields. Initially, the favored timing and conditions (A.K.A. “prescription”) for these fires was identified to be April or early May, with winds between 5-15.5 mph, humidity between 20-40 percent, clear skies, and — in the case of light to moderate rain — on land that has been given at least 24 hours to dry.

Prescribed fire at Saratoga National Historical Park in New York.
Prescribed fire at Saratoga National Historical Park in New York. NPS/A. Bracewell

For nearly 40 years, managers at the park have used prescribed fires to maintain and restore the Revolutionary War battlefield. They’ve also experimented with planned burns in the summer to see if this would decrease unwanted invasive and woody stemmed plants and increase desired native species in fields. Of the many reasons they’ve found these burns to be useful, the park points to their ability to reduce the spread of exotic invasive plants; to encourage growth of natural grasses; and to eliminate the need for personnel to work on hazardous slopes with hefty mechanical equipment.

The burns also provide valuable firefighting experience to the various fire personnel assisting, giving them the chance to sharpen and add to their skillsets and increase their qualifications in advance of wildfire incidents.

Civil War Battlefields on (Controlled) Fire

While these controlled fires may look wild, we’ve established that they’re planned and conducted in a manner that ensures that these intentional flames do not escape their bounds. Proven safe and effective, these fires have been used at some of our favorite, well-visited Civil War battlefields — such as Gettysburg National Military Park, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield and Manassas National Battlefield Park.

A successful prescribed fire was conducted on the west slope of Little Round Top on April 17, 2021. Here, you see General Warren’s view of the burn.
A successful prescribed fire was conducted on the west slope of Little Round Top on April 17, 2021. Here, you see General Warren’s view of the burn. NPS Photo
Prescribed Fire at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, Republic, Mo.
Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, in Republic, Mo., began using prescribed fires in 1988 as a method of maintaining open woodlands, removing invasive species, and promoting healthy prairies and native species diversity. NPS / J. Michael Johnson

Wildfire Out West

The opposite of a prescribed fire is a wildfire, which lacks control and restraint. With a reputation for destruction, wildfire has actually helped to shape the grassland where the Battle of Little Bighorn unfolded. Specifically, they’ve helped to maintain the ecosystem’s balance, shaping the makeup of vegetation by suppressing woody plants, like shrubs and trees, and favoring fire-tolerant grasses.  

Knowledge of the Little Bighorn landscape prior to the 1876 battle between the U.S. Cavalry and the Sioux and Cheyenne is very limited but research done on the northern plains leads us to believe that similar landscapes experienced burns once every two to three decades before European settlement.  

After the battle, the Sioux and Cheyenne set the grass west of the Little Bighorn River ablaze to cover their retreat. Noted as being present at the time of battle, sagebrush was subsequently burned by this fire — indicating it to likely be the first fire on the landscape in decades. In the years following, photo evidence showed the return of sagebrush and, therefore, the lack of wildfires.

Little Bighorn National Monument, Big Horn County, Mont.
Native bluebunch and western wheatgrasses, yucca, and Rocky Mountain juniper cover the landscape at Little Bighorn National Monument. NPS Photo

During the dry August of 1983, however, a fire blazed across 90% of Little Bighorn National Monument. It fended off shrubs and invasive species and allowed for a reseeding of native grasses, leaving the land to take on much of its historic and natural character. Additionally, it exposed cartridges, bullets, and other artifacts from the battle, spurring a series of archaeological digs.

Today, managers at Little Bighorn see wildfire as a balancing act. While it’s crucial to maintaining native vegetation, they must also protect artifacts, buildings and other structures. So, fires are allowed to burn to an extent, but action is taken to suppress them before they can threaten the history visitors travel far and wide to see.

Don Sniegowski
Preserving History, Protecting Nature
Our mission does more than safeguard history, it can also play a hand in the preservation and conservation of natural resources.