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Mississippi’s Fire on the Forty Campaign

A Prescribed Fire Incentive Program for Private Landowners

Written By: Kayci Willis


Earlier this year, a group of prescribed fire supporters gathered in Jackson, Mississippi to discuss the successes and shortcomings of Fire on the Forty, a prescribed fire cost-sharing and education program for private landowners. I had the privilege of being invited and listened intently as the partners of Fire on the Forty talked about the past, present, and future of this program. Intrigued by the unique model employed, and curious if it could be applied to other states, I arranged a meeting with John Gruchy, a Private Lands Program Coordinator with Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, where he explained in detail the vision and intentional design of the program.

The below content is based on my review of the program, and its potential application in other states, following my conversations and independent research.


Fire-maintained longleaf pine savannas, native prairies, and upland hardwood forests dominated Mississippi’s landscape until the early 1900s ushered in an era of fire suppression. Local anti-fire groups, like the Dixie Crusaders, were predecessors to the notorious Smokey Bear regime, instilling fear and attempting to extinguish the historic fire culture. Longleaf pine stands were replaced by loblolly pine, undesirable hardwoods dominated the canopies, once open prairies became overgrown, and fire-adapted species like gopher tortoises, northern bobwhites, and Bachman’s sparrows significantly declined. 

Restoration initiatives in the early 21st century put fire back on the landscape and worked to undo a century of fire suppression, but these efforts were mostly focused on public lands. While some private landowners embraced the fire culture again, generally speaking, the public had become apathetic to prescribed fire. Mississippi has fallen behind when it comes to prescribed fire implementation on private lands, especially when compared to the state’s eastern neighbors. 

Heat map of all burn data (2010-2020) in the Southeast showing the density of burn points on private lands, weighted by acreage (Varner et al., 2022)

Despite having the right to use prescribed fire on their property through the Mississippi Prescribed Burn Act of 1992, Mississippi landowners have fallen prey to the usual hurdles facing private burning: costs, lack of know-how, and liability concerns. In 2011, twenty-one land management entities in Mississippi started the conversation about how to alleviate some of these issues and initiated the Fire on the Forty campaign. In an effort to restore the historic fire culture that maintained Mississippi’s beloved landscape, this program was created to be a supplemental cost-share and public training initiative aimed at offsetting private burning costs while also addressing landowner knowledge gaps.

Of Mississippi’s 19.2 million forested acres, 77 percent is privately owned, with landowners independently managing their “back forty”. The notion of a “back forty” is a relic of the 1862 Homestead Act that granted 160 acres to willing farmers: two front forties and two back forties. If a farmer was unable to be reached, it was said he was on the back forty. Nowadays, the back forty is a common parlance describing undeveloped private property and is what Fire on the Forty is named after. The initiating committee wanted Fire on the Forty to focus on the smaller tracts that were private, but still pertinent to connectivity of habitats.

A Distinct Program

The Fire on the Forty campaign has four distinct components that sets it apart from other prescribed burning incentive programs. 

1. User-Friendly

The first distinction is the user-friendliness and conviviality of the program. From start to finish, Fire on the Forty aspires to be streamlined with minimal hassle on the landowner’s part. The application is only one page with clear, concise instructions and easy-to-answer questions. Following the submission of an application, a Fire on the Forty representative meets with the landowner to perform a site visit where they will review the proposed burn area and help the landowner develop a proposal for consideration by the steering committee. If the site is unsuitable for burning operations due to various conditions like dangerous fuel loads, the representative will instead provide technical advice on how to better prepare the property before utilizing prescribed fire operations.

2. Flexible & Extended Timeline

After the application and proposal process, Fire on the Forty participants that are awarded funds will have 18 months to complete their proposed burn. The program aims to be as flexible as possible, with landowners having the freedom to conduct the burn themselves or contract it out to private burners. The extended timeline also helps reduce schedule constraints due to weather, burn bans, or any other fire inhibitors. 

3. Stackable With Other Financial Assistance

While the program may not offer the most competitive rates at just a 50% match up to $12.50 an acre, especially when compared to deeper pocketed resources like Mississippi’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Fire on the Forty is not aiming to out-compete other financial assistance opportunities. The cost-share is stackable and Fire on the Forty encourages applicants to consider applying to other prescribed fire incentive programs. 

4. Education and Experience

The last distinction is the program’s commitment to landowner education and experience. Besides being a cost-share program, Fire on the Forty is a prescribed fire campaign working to restore the fire culture. They accomplish this through outreach initiatives like town hall meetings and Learn-to-Burn workshops. During the meetings, landowners who may not know much about prescribed fire can learn about the management tool and ask questions. At the workshops, landowners watch prescribed fire operations and have the opportunity to use a driptorch under the supervision of a certified burn manager. Both outreach initiatives build trust within the community and increase landowner comfort with prescribed fire.

John Gruchy with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, a Fire on the Forty partner, said it best as we were discussing the program, “The interesting thing about our program is we made it as easy as possible. No regulatory hurdles, just one site visit, then we rank the project and once funded, they can burn themselves or contract it out.”

Program Successes

To date, Fire on the Forty has expended approximately $780,000, with matched funds reaching about $1.7 million. Funding for Fire on the Forty is secured through State Wildlife Grants, the Mississippi Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation, the US Fish and Wildlife Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the U.S. Forest Service in collaboration with the Mississippi Forestry Commission.

The funding provided to landowners through Fire on the Forty has facilitated prescribed fire on 76,197 acres of private property. Additionally the program has conducted 33 workshops since its inception, averaging 1-2 workshops every fall and 2-3 workshops every spring (not including 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19). Fire on the Forty’s outreach initiatives have reached over 1,000 landowners across the state and garnered a running total of 1,386 applications to their cost-share program since 2011.

For the 10 year anniversary of the program in April of 2021, Fire on the Forty sent out surveys to previous participants of the program to gather feedback. While the data was not entirely representative of all participants, John Gruchy revealed some encouraging responses about the success of the program.“We [Fire on the Forty] surveyed participants and asked what they liked about the program. Two things [about the responses] stood out to me: The first was the benefit of having a streamlined process for the landowners that was centered around being flexible and easy to complete. The second was the value of the relationship landowners got with their Fire on the Forty representative. Having someone they [landowners] can trust and keep in contact with before and after the fire was… just as important as handing them the money.”

Program Limitations

John Gruchy and other Fire on the Forty Partners acknowledge the need for critical reviews and feedback of this program. It was during the 2022 Fire on the Forty committee meeting that the partners discussed program limitations. In our conversation following this meeting, John and I delved deeper into these shortcomings. We discussed how the most prevalent shortcoming of the program is that, ultimately, landowners have to want to burn their property and be willing to burn regularly. Liability concerns and a lack of prescribed fire insurance are listed among the top reasons that private landowners are hesitating to burn their properties. Cost-sharing and education are not enough to sustain the private prescribed fire movement, more support is needed before private individuals are empowered enough to fully embrace the prescribed fire culture. 

Even with the stackable cost-sharing opportunities, the cumulative financial assistance is usually not enough to cover total costs, especially for properties that require fuel treatments before a prescribed burn can be implemented. Given that first-time burners likely incur significant upfront costs for line prep, fuel reduction efforts, as well as the usual fire operation costs, the total costs outweigh the potential return on investment. 

Even if a landowner is willing and has the money, the burn still may not occur for a variety of reasons. Prescribed fire limitations are frequent and unavoidable. Conditions ranging from uncooperative weather to local burn bans can derail efforts to implement a prescribed burn. Additionally, given the statewide shortage of private contractors to implement the burn, rates and availability will vary. 

The final limitation is intentionally self-inflicted by the program. In an effort to get the most “bang-for-their-buck”, Fire on the Forty has targeted its efforts in two distinct regions. The first is the Blackland Prairie region located in the top right portion of the state. With less than 1% of the historical range remaining, prescribed fire is critical to maintaining/restoring this landscape that is home to rare grassland bird species like Northern Bobwhites and various sparrow species. Located in the southern area of the state, the Longleaf Pine region is similarly imperiled. While its historic range might have covered 11 million acres in Mississippi, now barely 250,000 acres remain. This landscape is home to the gopher tortoise, a keystone species that supports over 100 different native species with its burrows, but declining habitat has reduced populations and decimated wildlife abundance. By narrowing the program’s scope to these two regions, Fire on the Forty is consolidating its efforts to restore habitats that are in close proximity to each other. This ensures fire-managed landscapes, critical to the health of wildlife populations, are connected to one another and allows less-mobile species like the gopher tortoise to travel between wildlife patches. However, in limiting the program to selected counties, landowners in portions of the state outside of the designated regions are not as competitive for funding through Fire on the Forty. It is important to note, that these landowners are not excluded, and are still encouraged to apply for funding and attend the workshops.

Highlighted in red are the focal areas for Fire on the Forty. These counties are selected due to their proximity to two ecologically significant areas: the Blackland Prairie region and the Longleaf Pine region. 

Graphic Credit: Fire on the Forty Website

Room for Change

This prescribed fire incentive program model has tremendous potential to take advantage of emerging opportunities. As additional funding comes down the pipeline from various sources, like the Biden Administration’s Infrastructure Bill, Fire on the Forty could easily expand the scope and reach of its campaign.

The easiest expansion to implement is increasing the cost share rate. With the current cap at $12.50 an acre, increasing that rate to something like $15 an acre would draw in more applicants as the financial assistance becomes more competitive with prescribed fire preparation and implementation costs. Coupled with increasing the financial incentive, expanding the reach of the program to additional counties surrounding the targeted areas would expand the reach of the campaign and also draw in more applicants to the program. 

Given the long-term duration of fire suppression, many properties need to cut down the fuel load through methods like thinning or herbicide treatments before prescribed burning can be implemented safely. Currently, Fire on the Forty does not fund these treatments. Creating additional cost-share opportunities within the Fire on the Forty program, targeted at fuel treatment before a burn, would reduce environmental barriers to getting fire on the ground.

Fire on the Forty’s education and outreach initiatives are other areas that have room for expansion. John Gruchy says creating a third type of workshop is on the table. “We have introductory workshops that teach landowners about prescribed fire and we have workshops that encourage landowners to become a certified burner with some hands-on opportunities. What we need now is a third type of workshop geared towards giving landowners the opportunity to actually implement prescribed burns somewhere like on public lands and be part of a mentorship program.” This additional workshop would increase landowner comfort with the implementation of burns and facilitate a sense of community among neighboring landowners. John went on to say the mentorship component could also translate to workforce development. With the state needing more private contractors,  Fire on the Forty could expand their educational efforts into local community colleges, mentoring forestry students and supporting private burning endeavors.

A Model to Follow

Land management organizations in Mississippi saw a need to include private landowners in prescribed fire efforts, not only because their properties hold potential for wildlife habitat or because it reduces wildfire risks, but because private landowners have been an untapped resource in the effort to restore landscapes like longleaf pine savannas and native prairies. John Gruchy explained it as a numbers and feasibility problem

“If we break it down to the total number of burnable days, taking into consideration weather, burn bans, and other hindrances to putting fire on the ground, Mississippi land managers have about 55 days a year they can burn. That is approximately 55 days to cover the couple million acres of pine-grasslands and native prairies that need to be maintained to meet the goals of strategic plans like America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative. Federal, state, and local agencies don’t have the manpower to cover millions of acres in 55 days. The only way to meet these fire-management targets is to incorporate landowners.”

This is not an uncommon scenario for southern states. As climate change simultaneously makes fuel loads more dangerous and prescribed fire riskier to implement, the burnable days will become rarer and more precious. The more we can leverage landowner manpower through flexible programs like Fire on the Forty, the more land can be covered in those precious 55 days. 

Fire on the Forty has been a testament to what can be accomplished through the collaborative efforts of Mississippi’s federal, state, and local land management entities. As Fire on the Forty continues to go through a period of review before reinstating its cost-sharing opportunity, it is a great chance for other states to learn from this model’s successes and setbacks while considering implementing their own version. For more information about Fire on the Forty, click here to go to their website.


Edwards, S., Gruchy, J., & Lee, J. (2014). Fire on the Forty. Wildlife Professional, 8(2), 31–35.

Gruchy, J. (2022, October 3). Professional Communications.

Varner, J. M., Noble, J., Heirs, K., Simonson, E., & Cummins, K. (2022, September 8). Prescribed Burn Geodatabase for the Southeastern United States. A Community of Fire. 

Walsh, R., & Hamrick, R. (2021, February 16). Mississippi outdoors: Reinvigorating a culture. Habitat and Predator Management. 

A special thanks to John Gruchy for taking the time to speak with me and providing resources I could use for this article. I also want to thank Samuel Nye, Jennifer Fawcett, and Elliot Nauert for their edits and review.