Fighting fire with fire

Prevent wildfires. This concept has been taught and reinforced for years. Is it possible, however, that this message has resulted in more intense wildfires that cause greater damage? Forestry professor and expert on forest fires, Shep Zedaker, says he thinks so.


A Virginia Tech student sets a controlled burn A Virginia Tech student sets a controlled burn as part of Shep Zedaker's Wildland Fire and Ecology Management course.

''We've been taught as children to prevent wildfires, so the idea of a natural resources professional actually starting a forest fire is pretty foreign to most people,'' Zedaker said. ''A wildfire is something different than a prescribed fire.''

In his class, Wildland Fire Ecology and Management, Zedaker trains 40 to 60 new wildland firefighters each year. He also leads the student Virginia Tech Wildland Fire Crew in an effort to educate and train participants and the public about the value and necessity of using fire as a tool for wildfire management.

Fire is a natural force that shapes the ecosystem. On average, wildfires burn about 5.5 million acres per year in the United States. The damage and intensity of wildfires has increased for a number of reasons. They include

  • Past fire-suppression policies that have created the accumulation of fuel in the form of fallen leaves, branches, and excessive plant overgrowth in forests and woodlands.
  • Changing weather patterns in the United States that have brought increasingly hot, dry weather.
  • Increasing residential development that has increased wildfire intensity.

A student in Shep Zedaker's class manages a controlled burn A student in Shep Zedaker's class manages a controlled burn.

A prescribed fire occurs when it is ignited by forest management actions under controlled conditions to meet objectives concerning hazardous fuels reduction or wildlife habitat improvement. In order for a prescribed fire to be ignited, a fire plan must be written and approved. If on federal lands, the plan must meet National Environmental Policy Act requirements. Prescribed burns are a controversial issue because they contribute to air pollution and are a potentially dangerous management tool. When properly managed, however, the majority are conducted with no problems. While prescribed burns may also contribute to air pollution, the carbon monoxide released is far less than during an unintentional wildfire.

''You can have fire on its terms or on your terms,'' Zedaker said. ''The amount of particulate matter and gas is very high during a wildfire, but when you prescribe a fire, emissions are greatly reduced.''

A common misconception is that forest fires always damage wildlife habitats and the animals that dwell in them. However, the lack of fires can actually be more detrimental.


Shep Zedaker is professor of forestry at Virginia Tech. Shep Zedaker, professor of forestry at Virginia Tech, evaluates a controlled burn as part of his Wildland Fire Ecology and Management class.

''Another issue concerns the plant communities and animals in wildland areas that are highly dependent on fires to maintain their ecosystem,'' Zedaker said. ''If you exclude fire from an area, vegetation will change. When that occurs, the habitat that may have existed no longer does, in addition to the animals that may have lived there.''

Zedaker's class provides students with basic knowledge of the impact that fire has on forest environments. Students also learn how the environment influences fire behavior, how to suppress wildfires and how fire can be used as a management tool. In the weekly four-hour lab, students practice prescribed burning techniques and fire control methodology. Upon training and completion of the course, students can qualify as basic wildland firefighters.

Students who take Zedaker's class and complete the certification training to fight wildfires may become members of the Virginia Tech Wildland Fire Crew. The crew assists the U.S. Forest Service, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and private landowners in wildfire suppression and prescribed burning for wildfire prevention. Members of the crew may be called for fire duty at any time during the year. So far, 2008 has been typical; the crew was called 10 days during the spring 2008 term. They have only been called three days so far through October 2008, but the fall fire season is just getting underway.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Lynn Davis at, or call (540) 231-6157.

What is a prescribed fire and why are they necessary?


Students set a controlled-burn fire. Students in Shep Zedaker's Wildland Fire Ecology and Management course set a controlled burn.

One of the primary concepts Zedaker teaches his students is how prescribed burns are effective and necessary in order to accomplish certain objectives. The most common reasons for conducting prescribed burns in forests include

  • Reduce hazardous fuels
  • Prepare sites for seeding and planting
  • Dispose of logging debris
  • Improve wildlife habitat
  • Manage competing vegetation
  • Control disease
  • Improve forage for grazing
  • Enhance appearance
  • Improve access
  • Perpetuate fire-dependent species
  • Manage endangered species

How can you help reduce the risk of fire?

In Virginia, most forest fires are the result of human actions. The most fires occur during the months of February, March, April, and May. The Virginia Department of Forestry provides the following tips on how to reduce the risk of fire.

Open Burning

  • Clear a safety zone that is wide enough to prevent the escape of the fire.
  • Keep a supply of water and a rake or shovel readily accessible.
  • DO NOT leave a fire unattended (State Law year round).
  • If a fire does escape, call 911 immediately.
  • Burn after 4 p.m. (State Law, Feb. 15 through April 30 of each year). The law applies to campfires, warming fires, brush piles, household trash, stumps, fields of broomstraw and brush, or anything capable of spreading fire. The law provides for a penalty of up to $500, plus payment of court costs and fire suppression costs if the fire escapes.
  • Burn when the wind is calm.
  • Obey forest fire laws and air pollution regulations.


  • Clear a 10-foot safety circle of all leaves, pine needles, and flammable material.
  • Never leave a campfire unattended.
  • Adults should drown the fire ''dead out'' with water before leaving it.

Homeowner Equipment Use

  • Refuel lawn mowers, power saws, and other such equipment only after the engine and mufflers have cooled. Use approved gasoline containers.
  • Keep approved mufflers and spark arrestors installed and maintained.
  • Construct and maintain electric fences so they do not come in contact with dry weeds, brush, or the ground.
  • Park vehicles so that the exhaust system does not come in contact with dry grass, weeds, or leaves.
  • Notify the electric power company when dead trees or overhanging limbs endanger the electric wires. The wires may touch each other or the ground, causing sparks that start fires.

Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives