If you've ever seen Smokey the Bear, you know that “Only YOU can prevent wildfires." Over the past several years, you've probably watched news reports about the great damage that wildfires can cause. In addition to destroying beautiful forests, wildfires can burn homes and even take lives.

Did you realize, though, that not all forest fires are bad? It's true! Sometimes forest officials set fires on purpose. They do this when they use a forest management tool called a prescribed — or controlled — burn.

Many kids don't realize that fire is a natural part of a forest's life cycle. At times, other plants can grow on the forest floor, choking out desirable trees. This makes it more difficult for good trees to grow and for animals to find food and places to live.

Fire can burn through these unwanted plants, making more room for desirable trees. This, in turn, makes it easier for animals to find homes and food. In fact, the seeds of some of the most desirable hardwood trees need fire to crack open their shells before they can take root and grow into a tree.

Sometimes, these necessary fires occur naturally. For example, a thunderstorm may send a lightning bolt into a forest, starting a wildfire that burns away some of the unwanted underbrush. Unfortunately, these wildfires may also burn good trees in the process.

At other times, though, forest officials start fires purposefully in areas that need to be cleared. During a controlled burn, forest officials monitor the fire closely and put it out when the unwanted plants are gone. They keep the fire in check, so that it does not burn the good trees.

In this way, a controlled burn can prevent future wildfires. During the next thunderstorm, a lightning bolt might strike, but if there's no accumulated underbrush present, a wildfire might never spread.

Prescribed burns can also save trees from diseases and insect infestations. Invasive plant species sometimes choke out good trees. A prescribed burn can eliminate these invasive species — and the diseases and insects they carry — and thereby improve the overall health of the trees in a forest.

Controlled burns usually require a special permit and must be carried out by fire or forest officials. Fires are often ignited with a special tool called a drip torch. A drip torch pours out a steady stream of fuel onto the ground, so the user can control where the fire starts.

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