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Gaining in Public Acceptance, Can Prescribed Fires Head Off Devastating Wildfires?

Felicity Barringer
Jul 18 2019

An academic study supports the notion that one way to mitigate wildfires is clearing out trees, brush and brambles in the forest understory, often with prescribed burns. But proponents face a slew of obstacles, from pollution concerns and shrinking seasonal windows, to the vast scale of undertreated western forestland.

Presidio of Monterey Photograph

The U.S. Army conducts a prescribed burn in the Fort Ord National Monument in October 2017. Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

As another fire season stretches out before communities across the West, anxiety is inexorably mounting. Maybe it started with the March headlines about drought and 1.5 million dead trees killed by beetles in the southern Sierra. Maybe with the news that Pacific Gas & Electric, the dominant northern California utility, will turn power off in some communities when its wires risk causing a blaze like the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise in 2018. Maybe just since the dry season gets longer every day, anxiety can easily provoke impatience – what is being done to make us safer?

An academic study in May produced a cluster of headlines when it reiterated that one way to mitigate wildfires is clearing out trees, brush, and brambles in the forest understory. More is needed, said the study by University of Idaho scientist Crystal Kolden published in the journal “Fire” under a headline that began, “We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Wildfire…”

 

Resistance to Prescribed Fires Turns to Enthusiasm, But Many Obstacles Remain

But between the understandable fear and one obvious and underused remedy – prescribed fires – lie the hazy realities that stand in their way, even as experts agree that millions and millions of western acres should be treated.  Asked if the main obstacle to prescribed burns is logistical issues, or health concerns, or the availability of personnel, or weather, or funding, Mark Melvin, a spokesman for the national Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils, replied, “All of the above.” 

US Forest Service Photograph
A prescribed burn in Kings Canyon National Park in California’s southern Sierra Nevada mountains in 2011.   National Park Service

One problem, he said, is how decades of aggressive fire suppression left forests overgrown, choking in understory and without gaps in the topmost level. Another issue, said Melvin: “when was the last time an area burned?” And “location. It matters whether it’s next to a city or a class 1 airspace,”  – referring to a region containing a national park, monument, or other site where by federal law, the air must remain clean.

“Then there’s scale,” Melvin said. “Are you talking about burning 10 acres or 10,000? or 100,000? And there’s the season – you have to have the right kind of weather conditions.” There’s also the question of community attitudes to the smoke.

“Those are the challenges that you face,” and that make it hard for state or federal foresters to carry out prescribed burns, no matter the benefits,” Mr. Melvin said.

 

Can Small Prescribed Burns Meet the Staggering Need for Forest Clearance?

Melvin, who has been working to increase prescribed burns since he joined a regional group in Georgia 30 years ago, comes from a region where the burns have been common for decades – the Southeast. That’s not true for the West. Of the 33 million acres of forest in California alone – 20 million of which are under the U.S. Forest Service’s control – the number of acres covered by prescribed burns has risen from 8,067 acres seven years ago to 19,413 acres last year, according to data from Cal Fire, though Forest Service data shows a number about twice as high. Most of these have been on the western slope of the Sierra, in El Dorado County, which abuts Lake Tahoe. But some have been in areas from the Owens Valley in the East to Mendocino County in the West.

Graphic: For Prescribed Fire Treatments, a Regional Mismatch

Source: National Interagency Fire Center via Climate Central

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

But “it’s going to go up much more than that,” said Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, whose job is to avoid letting excessive smoke cover communities, where it could bring dangerous particulate matter and toxins. “We are in a new chapter,”  he said. “I think that this year is going to be a dividing line between the old approach and the new approach.” This follows Governor Gavin Newsom’s “massive focus on forest management and forest health.”

Scott McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said his agency has identified 35 projects covering 90,000 acres, which affect 200 communities around the state.  The “boots on the ground,” he said, “include the firefighters – 6,100 permanent and 2,400 seasonal workers,” who now work nine months, up from five. To do a prescribed burn in the past, McLean said, “we had to meet a lot of criteria. The government has streamlined a lot of that to enable us to get a quicker start.”

 

Where There’s Prescribed Fire, There’s Smoke: Western States Grapple with Air Quality Compromises

Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs

Smoke rises from the controlled burn at Fort Ord in October 2017.   Steven L. Shepard, Presidio of Monterey Public Affairs via Flickr

It’s not just California’s government taking action in the wake of two horrific fire seasons.  Southwest Oregon was bedeviled by smoke from multiple wildfires last summer,. In March, the state adopted new rules “to open things up to allow for more burning and still maintain air quality,” said Nick J. Yonker, the Oregon Department of Forestry’s smoke management program officer. Environmental health advocates at Oregon Wild protested the loosening of standards

Recent medical studies, including a new one from Stanford Medical School, show that the health impacts of smoke from prescribed burns is less than the impacts of wildfire smoke. With a prescribed burn, “We have a greater ability to manage the smoke,” said Sarah McCaffrey, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “You will not get air quality approval if the odds are great that you will have a major smoke impact” on a local community.

 

Objections Remain, But the Public is Warming to Prescribed Burns

But while public objections of prescribed burns have not disappeared, the amount and the volume have receded, according to federal foresters and state officials. As Mike Maynard, Cal Fire’s battalion chief in California’s Mendocino County, said, “I get to people I’ve been talking to for 40 years,” about forest management, he said. “Before, there were definitely questions and I had to justify” a proposed prescribed burn.” Now he said, “The enthusiasm is amazing.”

Chico-based California National Guard soldiers conduct search and debris clearing operations in Paradise, California in November 2018. Crystal Housman/U.S. Air National Guard

Chico-based California National Guard soldiers conduct search and debris clearing operations in Paradise, California in November 2018.   Crystal Housman/U.S. Air National Guard via Flickr

“The difference is that people now are scared. It’s gone from intermittent concern to ‘Paradise could happen here.’”

“The difference is that people now are scared. It’s gone from intermittent concern to ‘Paradise could happen here.’” Maynard’s unit has a waiting list of 30 private landowners who have requested burns. But right now, he added, “the conditions are not in our favor,” – low humidity and low moisture content in the wood. Still, he said, “Public opinion is finally in alignment with funding and policy.”

Community objections may have receded, but the obligation to avoid health impacts remains. Take this example: Late this winter, state air officials approved two 160-acre burns on the same day in the Inyo National Forest in California’s Owens Valley, south of the town of Big Pine.

 

Many Factors Have to Align for a Successful Burn

According to Jan Sudomier, an air quality specialist at the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, that agency approved the burns for February 26, assuming that southwesterly winds would disperse the smoke and keep it away from town. But on the appointed day, only one burn happened. She explained, “the southerly surface winds dominated and pushed the smoke straight up the valley through Big Pine.” In addition, she said, Cal Fire did not like the way the first fire was burning. The second was cancelled.

The tally kept by California Air Resources Board shows that, over the past five years, an average of about 70 percent of acres approved for prescribed burns were actually treated – last year that amounted to 3,800 acres in El Dorado County, which has the lion’s share of the prescribed burns in California.

 

Beyond Forests: Grassland Fires Are a Growing Problem

The Deep Creek Mountains in Utah. Photograph by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management

The Deep Creek Mountains in Utah.   Bob Wick/Bureau of Land Management via Instagram

The term wildland fire conjures up images of deep forest blazes, but an underappreciated and growing threat is posed by grassland fires as well. The acreage lost to wildfire in western forests is virtually equaled by fires in the nation’s grasslands. Unlike forest fires managed by the Forest Service and Park Service, grassland fires are often under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

Graphic: Grassland Surpasses Forest in Acres Burned Nationwide

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

“When you implement a prescribed fire, you get these invasives back. You may have restored the forests from a fire perspective, but you’ve lost other components.”

Michele Crist, a landscape ecologist at the National Interagency Fire Center, supports prescribed fire as a management tool where it makes sense, but notes that for areas experiencing too much fire, such as sagebrush lands in the Great Basin, the Bureau of Land Management is not promoting prescribed fire because “we have an invasive grass fire cycle that has completely changed” the natural fire cycle. Lower elevation grasslands that once burned infrequently now burn far too often, and since Invasive weeds like cheatgrass have grown among the sagebrush, and when fire comes, the cheatgrass burns first and then comes back first, It outcompetes the sagegrass, which slowly disappears, as a Bloomberg report describes. The more fire, of any sort, the more the old ecosystem is very challenging to restore.

Graphic: Sagebrush landscape gives way to fire-prone invasives after grassland fire
Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West and Michele Crist/National Interagency Fire Center

Cheatgrass and two other invasive weeds – ventanata and red brome – are also elbowing their way into the low piñon-juniper forests or ponderosa pine forests. “When you implement a prescribed fire, you get these invasives back. You may have restored the forests from a fire perspective, but you’ve lost other components, like flora and fauna. And the grasses that were once associated with this forest can easily be replaced by invasives,” said Crist.  

 

Prescribed Fires’ Seasonal Window of Opportunity is Narrowing

“The odds that you’re going to get the right conditions are not that big. Then when you get the right conditions, do you actually have the staff ready to do the burn?”

And even in places where invasives are not an issue, seasonal weather patterns narrow the available windows for prescribed burns. In the winter in the Sierra, there is too much snow. This year the snow will likely linger till August.  So in winter in most of the mountain West, “you just wouldn’t be able to get a blaze to light and take off,” Crist said. Then come spring rains. And the window between the end of the rains and the arrival of the dangerous heat is small, Burn too late into June and “at that point your risk of potentially losing control of the prescribed fire does increase.” Crist said.

Graphic: In California, Fall is Preferred Time for Controlled Burns

Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

“People are fine with prescribed fire once they understand all the work that goes into them,  McCaffrey said. Part of the work is identifying or prescribing the conditions that are needed to do the job safely, she addded.  In many places, “the odds that you’re going to get the right conditions are not that big. Then when you get the right conditions, do you actually have the staff ready to do the burn?”

 

New Forest Management Philosophy Echoes Millennia-Old Native Practices

Of all the federal land-owning agencies considering the use of prescribed burns for forest health and wildfire mitigation, the one where the idea fits most naturally is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For millennia, western tribes did exactly what the foresters of today seek to do – set fires that clear understory and improve the health of the forests and the land.

Many tribes work with fire, notably the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribe in northwest Montana and the Hupa, Karuk and Yurok tribes have been aggressively practicing these burns in the Klamath and Siskiyou mountains on the California-Oregon border. 

“You can technically say that Native Americans were involved in prescribed burning for thousands of years. The settlers used it as a tool,” said McCaffrey. In the 1920’s it was being used. Then it was pushed out in favor of having a focus on suppression. In the late 1950s and 60s, some scientists made good cases for its value… the forest service formally shifted from control to prescribed fire in 1978,” McCaffrey said.

A wildfire heading for the town hit the area of an old prescribed burn, and “just laid down.” 

Still, evidence that prescribed burns ameliorate the wildfires that follow is mixed.  A KQED report that month about groups in Weaverville, in California’s Trinity Alps, cooperating to use more prescribed burns, quoted the head of a local land stewardship saying that a wildfire heading for the town hit the area of an old prescribed burn, and “just laid down.” 

But some research studies, like this 2012 analysis in the “International Journal of Wildland Fire” show that prescribed burn patches can make a subsequent wildfire smaller – or larger.

Do these burns work to control wildfires? “It depends,” said Alan Olson, Regional Director of Ecosystem Planning for the Forest Service.  “Try to achieve the fuel conditions you want. If you’ve done that well, there’s a high likelihood” of success, given cooperation by the weather. “But,” he added, “it’s just like a dams. Dams don’t protect against all floods.”

Whether burns are designed to mitigate future fires or restore forests to their old life of regular burns, the flowering of both research and activity has created new networks of national, regional and local advocates and practitioners of prescribed burns. 

Compared to a few decades ago, “It’s night and day,” said Olson.  “If you stand back and look at the cooperation” among local state and federal agencies as well as nonprofits, “it’s tremendous. It’s as good today as it’s ever been.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

 

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Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Lang Atwood Nevada

Responding to Gaining in Public Acceptance, Can Prescribed Fires Head Off Devastating Wildfires?

I can recall in the 1980s in northern Nevada, eastern Calif. the BLM and U.S. Forest Service doing control burns in the Sierra foothills. Most of the time these were needed and were well done but on occasion they got out of control. The state and local agencies weren't really doing many burns then but are now more involved. Some like North Lake Tahoe Fire Dist. (Nevada) have their own seasonal wild land crew and a comprehensive fuel management program, this was unheard of until recently.

7/19/2019, 10:40am

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