Planned Burns Can Reduce Wildfire Risks, But Expanding Use of ‘Good Fire’ Isn’t Easy

Controlled burns are difficult to plan.

Controlled burns are difficult to plan. Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | Forests across much of North America need fire to maintain healthy structures and watershed conditions and support biodiversity.

As spring settles in across the United States, western states are already preparing for summer and wildfire season. And although it may seem counter-intuitive, some of the most urgent conversations are about getting more fire onto the landscape.

Winter and spring, before conditions become too hot and dry, are common times for conducting planned and controlled burns designed to reduce wildfire hazard. Fire managers intentionally ignite fires within a predetermined area to burn brush, smaller trees and other plant matter.

Prescribed burns can decrease the potential for some of the large, severe fires that have affected western states in recent years. As scholars of U.S. forest policy, collaborative environmental management and social-ecological systems, we see them as a management tool that deserves much wider attention.

Forests need ‘good fire’

Forests across much of North America need fire to maintain healthy structures and watershed conditions and support biodiversity. For centuries, Native Americans deliberately set fires to facilitate hunting, protect communities and foster plants needed for food and fiber.

But starting around the turn of the 20th century, European Americans began trying to suppress most fires and stopped prescribed burning. The exception was the Southeast, where forest managers and private landowners have consistently used prescribed burns to clear underbrush and improve wildlife habitat.

Suppressing wildfires allows dead and living plant matter to accumulate. This harms forests by reducing nutrient recycling and overall plant diversity. It also creates more uniform landscapes with higher fuel loads, making forests prone to larger and more severe fires.

Today many forested landscapes in western states have a “fire debt.” Humans have prevented normal levels of fire from occurring, and the bill has come due. Increasingly severe weather conditions and longer fire seasons due to climate change are making fire management problems more pressing today than they were just a few decades ago. And the problem will only get worse.

Fire science researchers have made a clear case for more burning, particularly in lower elevations and drier forests where fuels have built up. Studies show that reintroducing fire to the landscape, sometimes after thinning (removing some trees), often reduces fire risks more effectively than thinning alone. It also can be the most cost-effective way to maintain desired conditions over time.

This winter in Colorado, for example, the Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest conducted a prescribed burn while snow still covered much of the ground. This was part of a broader strategy to increase prescribed fire use and create areas of burned ground that will make future wildland fires less extreme and more feasible to manage.

A prescribed burn in the Arapahoe and Roosevelt National Forests, February 2019. USFS

State and local action heats up

From Oregon’s municipal watersheds to the Ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest, community-based partners and state and local agencies have been working with the federal government to remove accumulated fuel and reintroduce fire on interconnected public and private forest lands.

California’s legislature has approved using money raised through the California carbon market to fund prescribed fire efforts. New Mexico is using the Rio Grande Water Fund – a public/private initiative that supports forest restoration to protect water supplies – to pay for thinning and prescribed burning, and is analyzing ways to expand use of prescribed fire for forest management.

Oregon is in its first spring burning season with a newly revised smoke management plan designed to provide more flexibility for prescribed burning. In Washington, the legislature passed a bill in 2016 creating a Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot Project, which just published a report identifying ways to expand or continue use of prescribed fire.

At the community level, prescribed fire councils are becoming common across the country, and a network of fire-adapted communities is growing. Nongovernmental organizations are building burn teams to address fire backlogs on public and private lands, and training people to conduct planned burns. This work is all in an effort to build a bigger and more diverse prescribed fire workforce.

Briefing before a prescribed fire training exercise for women in northern California. USFS/Sarah McCaffrey

Barriers to conducting prescribed fire

In our research on forest restoration efforts, we have found that some national policies are supporting larger-scale restoration planning and project work, such as tree thinning. But even where federal land managers and community partners are getting thinning accomplished and agree that burning is a priority, it has been hard to get more “good fire” on the ground.

To be sure, prescribed fire has limitations and risks. It will not stop wildfires under the most extreme conditions and is not appropriate in all locations. And on rare occasions, planned burns can escape controls, threatening lives and property. But there is broad agreement that they are an important tool for supporting forest restoration and fuel mitigation.

The conventional wisdom is that air quality regulations, other environmental policies and public resistance are the main barriers to prescribed fire. But when we interviewed some 60 experts, including land managers, air regulators, state agency partners and representatives from non-government organizations, we found that other factors were more significant obstacles.

As one land manager told us, “The law doesn’t necessarily impede prescribed burning so much as some of the more practical realities on the ground. You don’t have enough money, you don’t have enough people, or there’s too much fire danger” to pull off the burning.

In particular, fire managers said they needed adequate funding, strong government leadership and more people with expertise to conduct these operations. A major challenge is that qualified personnel are increasingly in demand for longer and more severe fire seasons, making them unavailable to help with planned burns when opportunities arise. Going forward, it will be particularly important to provide support for locations where partners and land managers have built agreement about the need for prescribed fire.

Humans have inextricably altered U.S. forests over the last century through fire exclusion, land use change, and now climate change. We cannot undo what has been done or suppress all fires - they are part of the landscape. The question now is where to invest in restoring forest conditions and promoting more resilient landscapes, while reducing risks to communities, ecosystems, wildlife, water and other precious resources. As part of a broader community of scientists and practitioners working on forest and fire management, we see prescribed fire as a valuable tool in that effort.

The Conversation

Courtney Schultz is an associate professor of forest and natural resource policy at Colorado State University. Cassandra Moseley is the senior associate vice president for research and and a research professor at the University of Oregon. Heidi Huber-Stearns is an assistant research professor and the director of the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the University of Oregon. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

NEXT STORY: Why a County Eliminated Degree Requirements for 82 Types of Jobs

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.