Effects on Human Health and Welfare


The general public's occasional and brief exposure to low concentrations of drift smoke is more of a temporary inconvenience than a health problem. However, smoke can have negative short-and long-term health effects such as eye and respiratory system irritation. Most particulate emissions from prescribed fires are small enough to enter the respiratory system. It is possible that lengthy exposure to relatively low concentrations of smoke over many years can contribute to respiratory and other health problems.

High concentrations of smoke near homes of people with respiratory illnesses or near health-care facilities also can be problematic. As can burning noxious plants such as poison ivy in the smoke—possibly causing skin rashes and respiratory system irritations.

Effects on water

The main effect of prescribed burning on the water resource is the potential for increased rainfall runoff. When surface runoff increases after burning, it may carry suspended soil particles, dissolved inorganic nutrients, and other materials into adjacent streams and lakes reducing water quality. Rainwater leaches minerals out of the ash and into the soil. In sandy soils, leaching may also move mineral through the soil layer into the ground water. Generally, a properly planned prescribed burn will not adversely affect either the quality or quantity ground or surface water in the South.

Effects on air/Smoke management

Prescribed burning helps achieve many objectives but it also can pollute the air. Smoke from prescribed burning is one of the greatest single factors causing public concern. The amount of smoke emitted and its dispersal are affected by how and when the burn is conducted. There are ways to monitor and lessen the impact of smoke from prescribed burns.

Most southern states have either voluntary or mandatory smoke management guidelines for planning a prescribed burn. Your local state forestry office can advise you of recommended and required procedures. Many states also conduct smoke management workshops for prescribed burners.

There are a few ways to calculate the atmosphere's capacity to disperse smoke—called ventilation rate or ventilation factor. They all include the following steps:

  1. Plot direction of the smoke plume,
  2. Identify smoke-sensitive areas,
  3. Identify critical smoke-sensitive areas,
  4. Determine fuel type, and
  5. Minimize risk


The Southern Forestry Smoke Management Guidebook

Smoke Management Guide for Prescribed and wildland Fire 2001 Edition


For safety and legal reasons, certain groups should be notified before a prescribed burn to prevent unnecessary concerns and danger. Notifying neighbors, fire departments and local law enforcement officials should be part of each prescribed burn plan. Notification may be required by your state, county or city. You should check whether a burn permit is required and if there is a burn ordinance in effect for your area. You should also provide a copy of the burn plan to the local fire department or other designated authorities.


Studies show that public perceptions regarding prescribed fire are similar to the threatening perceptions of wildfire. This misperception can be countered with information, education, standardized practitioner certification, consistently successful burns and public policy conducive to safe, effective burning practices.

Policy should encourage prescribed fire as a management tool and a protective measure against wildfire risk while providing safety standards and guidelines.



Liability varies from state to state. Southern states are known as either strict liability states or negligence states

Being a strict liability state means that if you start the prescribed fire and it escapes, you —the landowner—are civilly liable for actual damages. 

Being a negligence state means the one setting the fire is presumed innocent if the fire escapes. The liability for an escaped fire is placed on the certified prescribed burn manager (not the hiring landowner).

There are standards for prescribed burn manager certification and laws that set the minimum of liability insurance required. 

Most insurance policies will be in effect for the majority of private burns with legitimate objectives. Insurance may vary by state and local laws, but no matter where you are in the South, the question of liability can be mitigated by appropriate planning and timing.

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