Prescribed Fire

A prescribed fire, or a controlled burn, is the intentional application of fire to a particular property under specific environmental and weather conditions (the prescription) in order to accomplish planned land management objectives. The City of Fitchburg uses prescribed fire on public property as a land management tool to establish and maintain native plant communities, which require fire to thrive.   

Harlan Hills Prescribed Fire
A controlled burn taking place in Harlan Hills prairie.

History of Fire in Wisconsin:

Fire was an integral part of Wisconsin’s natural environment pre-European settlement. At least half of the state of Wisconsin was burned on a regular basis due to Native Americans burning land for settlements and hunting purposes, or natural wildfires caused by lightning strikes. Native plant communities adapted to frequent fire in their environment and now depend on it for their regeneration and growth. However, fires have been largely suppressed in Wisconsin for the last 150 years. Without the use of prescribed burning as a management tool, Wisconsin could lose many of its native grassland, wetland, and savanna plant communities.

Prescribed fire has several benefits to plants and wildlife, including:

  • protecting biodiversity and promoting ecosystem resiliency
  • recycling nutrients from burned fuels back into the soil
  • maintaining the vertical structure and/or open nature of fire-dependent plant communities
  • reducing the presence of invasive species that cannot survive in the heat
  • reducing competition for slower-growing native trees, like oaks, that would otherwise be shaded out
  • increasing the diversity and quantity of native plant food sources for wildlife
  • creating habitat for wildlife species that rely on open areas

How does a burn in Fitchburg work?

Prescribed burns usually happen during the early spring (March-May) and late summer/fall (July-November) because these are the periods when desirable plant and animal species are less active. The City of Fitchburg hires contractors to conduct prescribed fire in order to manage for native vegetation in a variety of parks and storm water facilities. The City of Fitchburg utilizes qualified and insured burn contractors staffed with trained professionals. The burn contractor is required to submit a burn plan and map, obtain a burn permit, and notify neighboring residents.

Safety is the top priority when conducting a controlled burn. Before any burn is carried out, experienced and trained personnel assess the area to determine key conditions such as wind direction and speed, relative humidity, “fuel” (plant) moisture, and proximity of houses, roads, and other buildings. The prescribed fire will only be conducted if all site conditions and weather factors are in order.

Neighbors will always be notified with as much advance as possible, but since the decision to burn or not to burn is ultimately made on the day-of based on weather conditions, it can’t be predicted exactly what day it will happen.

Burn Contractor
Burn Contractor
Trained workers conducting controlled burns in the City of Fitchburg.
Dawley Conservancy prescribed fire
Swan Creek prescribed fire

After the controlled burn is complete, the area will look blackened everywhere that fuels have been consumed, as seen here in Dawley Conservancy and Swan Creek Park. The burn crew will ensure the whole area is completely extinguished and properly cleaned up before leaving.

Post-burn in McGaw Park
McGaw Park in the recent weeks following a prescribed fire. Notice new plant material emerging from the blackened ground, and a difference in the plant composition between burned and unburned areas.

View our Burn Maps to see where controlled burns are conducted in the City of Fitchburg.

The City of Fitchburg does not use prescribed fire to dispose of leaves or other woody debris. More information on burning in the City of Fitchburg can be found here: City of Fitchburg Burn Permit Regulations.

For more information on prescribed fire in Wisconsin, visit:

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