Open Burning vs. Prescribed Burning

Monday, May 4, 2020 - 3:34pm

What do you think of when you think of fire?  Camp fires, a fireplace, a wildfire....there are all sorts of fires.  While some fire is destructive, other fire is beneficial. 

One type of fire that is regulated by the Division of Air Quality is open burning.  Open burning is one of North Carolina’s oldest air quality regulations, set in 1971.  Under the rule, it is always illegal to burn trash and other non-vegetative materials. Leaves, branches and other plant growth can be burned under certain conditions.  Burning trash is illegal because it causes a lot of air pollution, which in turn has negative health impacts, especially on people with preexisting conditions like asthma. 

On the flip side, you may have seen or heard of prescribed burns-planned, controlled burns in parks or other conserved land.  The NC State Parks are calling 2020 the “Year of Fire” and have educational resources about prescribed burning.  

So why would someone set a fire intentionally?

Much of North Carolina’s ecosystem is adapted to periodic fires, so conducting prescribed burns helps native plants and animal species flourish while discouraging invasive species that would otherwise get out of control. They also help prevent wildfires by reducing the amount of fuel present.  Prescribed burns are conducted by “burn bosses” who have gone through intensive safety training and have to pay close attention to many different factors before starting a burn.  The steps taken when conducting a prescribed burn keep the fire low, in a specific area, and minimize smoke.  Although there will always be some air pollution from fire, prescribed burns have a much smaller impact than an out of control wildfire, so it is beneficial to conduct prescribed burns every year to every few years. 

You can use NC DAQ’s visibility guide to smoke to figure out if a nearby fire is affecting air quality near you.  Check your visibility range at, then compare to our guide.