Virginia Prescribed Fire Council

The first Virginia Prescribed Fire Council Meeting was held on July 21st at the Virginia Department of Forestry's Headquarters office in Charlottesville VA. There was a great turn out with 20 different organizations, agencies or groups represented. The primary focus was a presentation by Cindy Huber with the USFS which dealt with air quality issues for Virginia. In addition, each member of the steering committee made a short presentation on prescribed fire and their agency.

Virginia Department of Forestry

The use of prescribed fire as a resource management tool has long been regarded as indispensable.
Historically Smokey Bear and his fire prevention message has created a misconception that all fire is bad. Various southern ecosystems depend on fire as do many silvicultural recommendations. Fire can be both good and bad depending on when, where, and how it occurs. With proper training and planning, prescribed burn managers will know the when, where, and the how to use fire to benefit the resources. How well we manage smoke from prescribed fires will determine our future use of this valuable and indispensable resource management tool.

The general public has a great influence over how we manage the resources of the forest. Some forest regulations are based on public emotion instead of scientific facts. Public relations are an essential part of a prescribed burn. The prescribed fire manager should feel obligated to minimize effects on the nearby residents and be prepared to “sell” his or her job to the general public.

“Image has everything to do with how we are perceived and may have little to do with what we actually are.”

For more information on Prescribed Fire, visit our website.

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is a strong proponent of the wise use of prescribed fire. We recognize its value in promoting wildlife habitat for many species. Animals such as bobwhite quail, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, ruffed grouse, yellow-breasted chat, field sparrow, Eastern towhee, Eastern cottontail rabbit, golden-winged warbler, and many more, benefit from the proper use of fire in habitat management. DGIF staff routinely use prescribed fire to maintain many of the 200,000 plus acres of state lands we manage in great condition for wildlife.

In addition, we recognize that prescribed fire can be used to reduce fuel loads and help prevent catastrophic, un-controlled wildfires. By visiting our website you will find helpful information on managing early-succession habitats with and without fire. The sections “open land habitat management” and “forest land management” both contain information on how prescribed fire can be used to maintain healthy early-succession ecosystems. Information about all of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ numerous programs can be found on our website.

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is a supporter and user of prescribed fire to restore natural area function. We have recognized the historic significance and contemporary utility of fire as a management tool, and apply prescribed fires to many of our properties across Virginia. Our primary objectives are rare species management or ecosystem restoration and maintenance. We work with our many partners to maintain a professionally trained and equipped fire program, and routinely implement or participate in prescribed fires across the state.

Department of Conservation and Recreation

The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) recognizes that prescribed fire is a unique, critical, and effective management tool for meeting a broad array of biological and resource management objectives. These include enhancing habitats for rare species of plants and animals, restoring/maintaining fire-dependant natural communities, wildlife management, maintenance of viewsheds, hazardous fuel reduction, and helping to control invasive species. DCR resource managers actively plan and implement prescribed burns on DCR's systems of Natural Area Preserves and State Parks. DCR works with many state, federal, and private partners to maintain professionally-trained crew in order to accomplish prescribed fire projects on DCR and partner-lands throughout Virginia.

National Park Service

National Park Service policy stresses managing fire, not just suppressing it. This means understanding fire on landscapes over time, planning for fires and using fire as one of many ways to manage public lands. The goals are to protect human life, property and resources while restoring fire’s role as a dynamic, necessary natural process for healthy ecosystems.

Prescribed burning is one way to help achieve those goals. Parks must complete a fire management plan and a burn plan before burning. The day of the ignition, all the conditions identified in a go/no go checklist must also be met. These include proper staffing and the right weather. National parks have used fire to restore or maintain historic scenes, improve habitat and reduce hazard fuels.

For more information the National Park Service fire and aviation management program visit:

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service manages over 500 national wildlife refuges throughout the United States, including 14 staffed and un-staffed refuges in the state of Virginia. Refuges are located from the coastal plain of southeastern Virginia, to the Eastern Shore, urbanized Northern Virginia, and along the James and Rappahannock Rivers. Prescribed fire plays an important role in these southern ecosystems, and is used regularly on many of the Virginia refuges. The Service focuses on two main objectives for the use of prescribed fire: protecting lives, property and the loss of natural resources by reducing or modifying the fuels which contribute to damaging wildfires, and restoring and maintaining Service lands in desirable condition by use of prescribed burning.

Fire operations for the Service are managed through a Zone Fire Program, based out of Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. The Zone program provides support for prescribed fire and fire suppression operations for all the refuges in Virginia, and in addition to providing support for refuges throughout the zone, also provides robust support to other federal, state and NGO partner agencies in the state through cooperative agreements.The Service recognizes the vital role of prescribed fire in the State, and strongly supports it's wise use across agency boundaries, and in the private sector.

A brief history of Wildland Fire in Virginia

The use of fire in the forests of Virginia has come full circle. Early settlers found Indians using fire in virgin pine stands and adopted the practice themselves to provide better access, improve hunting, and to get rid of brush and timber so they could farm. Annual burning to “freshen up” southern range became a custom. This practice, plus destructive wildfires after logging, left millions of acres of forest land in the south devoid of trees.

The increasing wildfire problem coupled with the need for a fire-free interval of several years to allow the pines to become reestablished led many foresters to advocate the exclusion of all fire from the woods. Others, however, pointed out that fire might have a place in the management of longleaf pine. Fire has been used by professional foresters to reduce hazardous fuels since the turn of the century. The misconceptions and controversy surrounding the deliberate use of fire to achieve resource management objectives have slowly been replaced by facts. As knowledge accumulated, the use of prescribed fire grew.

So, where do we start discussing wildland fire history–with the beginning of the Earth, with the first human use of fire, which may have occurred well over a million years ago, or with the evolution of prescribed fire beginning in the 1930s in the United States? Where we start to tell the story is appropriately defined by those who are listening to our story.

The story of the history of fire is fascinating. It is a story of how fire has shaped the landscape, our human history, our cultural evolution, and the natural and built communities in which we reside. It is a story of building up and burning down, of shaping and reshaping. While natural wildland fire has exerted its own shaping forces, humans using both native wisdom and scientific knowledge of fire ecology and fire management have also shaped fire regimes.

As we tell the story of fire to illustrate the science of wildland fire management, we also need to tell stories that promote coexistence with wildland fire. We are reminded each year as the fire season manifests itself that fire has been with us since the beginning of time and will probably be with us throughout time.

North America has a rich wildland fire history illustrating human coexistence with fire, the impacts of fire suppression, and the ravages of wildland fire. The Forest History Society (, among others, catalogs such conservation history.

Capt. John Smith commented that in the forests around Jamestown in Virginia:

“A man may gallop a horse amongst these woods any waie, but where the creeks and Rivers shall hinder.” Andrew White, on an expedition along the Potomac in 1633, observed that the forest was: “Not choked with an undergrowth of brambles and bushes, but as if laid out in by hand in a manner so open, that you might freely drive a four horse chariot in the midst of the trees.”

Smith’s and White’s observations of the open nature of eastern forests are typical of those of most other early observers, who commonly spoke of the ease of riding a horse or driving a wagon under the forest canopy. Reports of such open conditions were widespread in the coastal forests and in the forests west of the Appalachians as well, as far north as Quebec.

Such conditions could only have been created by frequent, low-intensity ground fires, many of which were set by Indians.

In surveying the boundary between the states of North Carolina and Georgia in 1811, Andrew Ellicott wrote that: “The greatest inconvenience we experienced arose from the smoke occasioned by the annual custom of the Indians in burning the woods. Those fires scattered over a vast extent of country made a beautiful and brilliant appearance at night; particularly when ascending the sides of the mountains.”

But frequent forest burning did more than reduce the undergrowth and improve the habitat for preferred species. In many cases, it created grasslands in areas where forests otherwise would have existed. Prairies extended into Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and western New York. In Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley—a broad valley located between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Allegany’s—was one vast grass prairie which covered more than 1,000 square miles. Native Americans burned the area annually. R.C. Anderson writes that the eastern prairies and grasslands, “Would mostly have disappeared if it had not been for the nearly annual burning of these grasslands by the North American Indians.” In the West, as well, Indian burning also greatly extended the area of grasslands and reduced the area of forest.

The plants and animals that existed at the time of human arrival in the southeastern part of the North American continent were arguably adapted to fire on a relatively frequent interval.  Fire occurrences were no doubt more frequent on drier sites and less frequent on wetter sites.  The wetter sites tended to grow greater quantities of fuel, which probably resulted in more intense fires but on a lesser frequency.  Those plants, which could not survive the passage of a flame front, were relegated to exist in very moist soil conditions.  Some plants evolved with a reproductive strategy that allowed them to survive fire, such as serotinous cones.

Agricultural crops and communities of wooden homes were not adapted to the natural cycle of fire. While many Native American groups were relatively nomadic, the new settlers were not. To the new immigrants, flaming fire meant the loss of everything, while Native Americans simply relocated their communities in concert with this natural force.
The new culture in North America, while seeking to control fire, did use fire for land clearing, cleaning areas of snakes, brush and briars, and to enhance wildlife propagation. However, the practices were ill-conceived by today’s standards and often resulted in conflagrations, not enhancements.

By the advent of the American Revolutionary War, fire regimes had begun to change. European perspectives of fire were crossing the Allegheny Mountains. Within 100 years, they would reach to the west coast. By the post-Civil War period, the last of interior Florida wildland was being settled, the last open ranges in the Dakotas hosted extensive herds of cattle, and the last great virgin forests were beginning to fall. With the spread of human activities, the booming American population began to spread fire.

Often careless or ignorant use of fire resulted in conflagrations. The Peshtigo, Wisconsin, fire of 1871 left 1,300 dead and more than one million acres charred. Newspaper headlines and government debates flourished. So did wildland fires–many became data points for disaster (e.g., Yacult, Washington burn in 1902; Virginia’s Dismal Swamp burn in the 1930s; Oregon’s Tillamook burns in the 1930s and ‘40s).

The creation of the U.S. Forest Service formalized a national approach to wildland protection, which was heavily weighted toward suppression. As the Virginia Forest Service (present day Virginia Department of Forestry) and other federal and state land resource management agencies came into being in the early 1900s (1914 for the VDOF), they followed the U.S. Forest Service’s lead. That lead advocated a national perspective of fire eradication.

While the battle was valiant, the battle plan was flawed. Numerous firefighting organizations sprung up at the local levels; fire tool cache boxes were scattered throughout the country, and a national agenda was put into place. The battles were fought from every sector–government organized, varied firefighting hardware was invented or redesigned, and religious leaders in the southeastern United States, where fire was indiscriminately used more so than in other places, preached of the “evils” of setting fires. While not completely suppressed, there was a great reduction in wildland fire.

As early as the 1930s, land managers in the southeastern United States began arguing for the return of more natural fire regimes. Other fire-dependent regimes were equally in need of fire, but had few advocates. While few could argue, then or now, that the suppression and prevention of extreme fire was not appropriate, few were arguing that the focus should be on maintenance of natural fire regimes.

Even our wildlands are now being transformed to accommodate human settlement. It is the wildland/urban interface, which redirects the focus in many areas. Adding to the complexity of fire management and contemporary history is the issue of smoke management. How does smoke impact human health, transportation, agriculture, atmospheric carbon loading, and global warming? The regulatory community now struggles with atmospheric impacts, weighting them against the danger of reducing prescribed fire.

Wildland fire history is critical to telling the story of our ecological history. Without this historical perspective, we are without a baseline perspective to make our story whole. Without a whole story for society to understand, those who seek to manage wildland fire with a Pulaski in one hand, a set of regulations in the other, and a news microphone in front of them, will continue to find the message wanting.

Last modified: Monday, 11-May-2015 09:54:16 EDT

Mission Statement

The mission of the Virginia Prescribed Fire Council is to foster cooperation among all parties in Virginia with an interest or stake in prescribed fire for the purpose of optimizing burning opportunities for the benefit of natural ecosystems and wildlife and to reduce the risk of damage from wildfires. This will be accomplished by encouraging the exchange of information, techniques and experiences among practitioners of prescribed fire in Virginia and by promoting public understanding of the regional importance and benefits of prescribed fire.

Consider becoming a member of the Virginia Prescribed Fire Council (English; Word format).


  1. Provide a framework for communications regarding prescribed fire objectives, techniques and issues.
  2. Review prescribed fire problems and suggest courses of action.
  3. Promote the safe and responsible use of prescribed fire.
  4. Disseminate technical information.
  5. Promote the development and utilization of prescribed fire practices commensurate with desirable environmental resource management.
  6. Promote public understanding of the benefits of prescribed fire.

Steering Committee Members

This graphic links to the Virginia Department of Forestry.

This graphic links to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation website.



This graphic links to The Nature Conservancy.

This graphic links to the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils' website.

This graphic links to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service website.

This graphic links to the National Park Service website.

This graphic links to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website.