Using fire to fight fire

One of the tools that the BC Wildfire Service uses to help contain very large wildfires is controlled fire

BC Wildfire Service

VICTORIA – One of the tools that the BC Wildfire Service uses to help contain very large wildfires is controlled fire.

This technique is known as planned ignitions, controlled burn-offs, controlled burn-outs, or backfiring.

Q: When would the BC Wildfire Service use fire to fight fire?

A: When the decision is made to conduct burning operations, the fire is usually beyond initial attack stage. Whether the BC Wildfire Service is “burning out,” “burning off” or “backfiring,” the goal is always the same: To remove majority of available fuels so that the fire has nothing left to burn.

Q: What is “burning out”?

A: Burning out reduces the fire spread potential by eliminating unburned forest fuels between a control line and the fire perimeter. Burning out can bring the fire’s edge to natural boundaries like a lake or rock outcropping or to constructed boundaries like machine or hand guard.

Q: What is “burning off”?

A: Burning off entails burning green islands of fuel that are within the fire perimeter. This is done to eliminate the chance of re-burn and fire spotting potential.

Q: What is “backfiring”?

A: Backfiring is the same as burning off but on a much larger scale, the aim being to deprive the fire front of as much fuel as possible in as short a time as possible. Backfiring is used to reduce fire intensity, spotting and forward rate of spread. It can also improve visibility for air attack by drawing smoke away from drop zones where tankers will apply retardant.

Q: What are some of the other benefits to fighting fire with fire?

A: Burning off and burning out are carried out on wildfires to enhance the overall safety, efficiency and effectiveness of fire management efforts. Planned ignitions are considered when attacking the fire directly, such as with water and removing fuels with equipment or by hand, would no longer be effective or safe.

Q: When would indirect attack be more effective than direct attack?

A: Direct attack can be limited in effectiveness due to lack of available water, lack of resources, unsafe conditions, inoperable terrain or extreme fire behaviour due to the fuel type, weather conditions or dryness of forest fuels.

Q: What are the priorities with controlled burns?

A: The first priority is always safety. Controlled burns must provide for the safety of personnel, the public, equipment and all adjacent values. Potential hazards must be identified, assessed and mitigated with the ignition plan.

Q: What conditions are needed for success?

A: Before planned ignitions can be carried out environmental conditions must be considered like: weather, terrain, fuel loading and potential fire behaviour. Wind and its direction is often the most influential environmental factor when conducting burn operations on wildfires. Temperature and humidity must also be in a zone where ignition is successful and all fuel is consumed at a manageable rate.

Q: What time of day is the best time to conduct controlled burns? Isn’t it safer to light burns at night, when it’s cooler as opposed to the middle of the day when the fire is more active?

A: Burn operations are planned when wind direction will be the most beneficial to achieve the burn’s objectives. During the summer 2017, there is not seeing any significant decrease in fire behaviour overnight on many of the major fires.

Q: Isn’t it counter-productive to set a controlled burn, only to have it escape? Doesn’t that just make the existing wildfire worse?

A: Not necessarily. There are many factors at play. Burn-off operations are always supported with appropriate resources, such as aircraft, heavy equipment and firefighters. In this way, if a burn does escape it can be actioned right away. Given the aggressive behaviour being exhibited on many of the 2017 wildfires, there is the potential for escapes; but that potential exists without conducting burn-offs as well.

Q: How are burn-offs conducted?

A: During a wildfire, ignition objectives are set by the Incident Management Team or the Ignition Specialist. In both cases, ignition falls under the Operations Section Chief. Before any burn is carried out on a wildfire, safety hazards are addressed and crews must establish control lines and a water delivery system.

To report a new wildfire or an open burning violation, please call 1 800 663-5555 toll-free or *5555 on a cellphone.

For up-to-date information on current wildfire activity, burning restrictions, road closures and air quality advisories, call 1 888 3-FOREST (1 888 336-7378) or visit:

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