How Planned Burns Can Reduce Wildfire Risks

How Planned Burns Can Reduce Wildfire Risks A U.S. Forest Service employee using a drop torch during a planned burn in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest. USFS/Ian Horvath, CC BY-SA

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.

Fire managers conduct prescribed burns to improve forest conditions and reduce the threat of future wildfires.

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

About The Author

Courtney Schultz, Associate Professor of Forest and Natural Resource Policy, Colorado State University; Cassandra Moseley, Sr. Associate Vice President for Research and Research Professor, University of Oregon, and Heidi Huber-Stearns, Assistant Research Professor and Director, Institute for a Sustainable Environment, University of Oregon

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming Kindle Edition

by David Wallace-Wells
0525576703It is worse, much worse, than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible. In California, wildfires now rage year-round, destroying thousands of homes. Across the US, “500-year” storms pummel communities month after month, and floods displace tens of millions annually. This is only a preview of the changes to come. And they are coming fast. Without a revolution in how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth could become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century. Available On Amazon

The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption

by Dahr Jamail
1620972344After nearly a decade overseas as a war reporter, the acclaimed journalist Dahr Jamail returned to America to renew his passion for mountaineering, only to find that the slopes he had once climbed have been irrevocably changed by climate disruption. In response, Jamail embarks on a journey to the geographical front lines of this crisis—from Alaska to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, via the Amazon rainforest—in order to discover the consequences to nature and to humans of the loss of ice.  Available On Amazon

Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves: How to Thrive While Creating a Sustainable World

by Ellen Moyer
1942936559Our scarcest resource is time. With determination and action, we can implement solutions rather than sit on the sidelines suffering harmful impacts. We deserve, and can have, better health and a cleaner environment, a stable climate, healthy ecosystems, sustainable use of resources, and less need for damage control. We have so much to gain. Through science and stories, Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves makes the case for hope, optimism, and practical solutions we can take individually and collectively to green our technology, green our economy, strengthen our democracy, and create social equality. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfrdehiiditjakomsfaptruesswsvthtrurvi

LATEST VIDEOS

What Is The Future Of Climate Change?
by Simon Donner
You would think with all the chatter going on about climate that we’d all have a good understanding on the elements of…
Why Marianne Williamson's Candidacy for President Is Important
Why Marianne Williamson's Candidacy for President Is Important
How do you know something exists if you never hear about it? How do you know about the truth, which is often "the other…
Would You Eat Meat Grown From Cells In A Laboratory? Here's How It Works
Would You Eat Meat Grown From Cells In A Laboratory? Here's How It Works
by Leigh Ackland
For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering…
Climate System “Getting Unhinged” as Massive Heat Wave Causes Record Melting of Greenland Ice Sheet
by Democracy Now!
The massive heat dome that shattered all-time temperature records across much of Europe last week has settled in over…
Why We're Heading For A Climate Catastrophe
by BBC Newsnight
Scientists say the world is completely off track.
A Climate Reckoning In The Heartland
by CBS News
"A historic flood in March 2019 left much of America's heartland under water. Partiularly hard-hit were Midwestern…
What Would Happen If Antarctica Melted?
by Put Put 1
"What Would Happen If Antarctica Melted?
Dr. Peter Wadhams: Arctic Research & the Methane Risk
by UPFSI
Peter Wadhams is back on ScientistsWarning.TV with a comprehensive analysis of the reticent approach that part of the…

LATEST ARTICLES

What Is The Future Of Climate Change?
by Simon Donner
You would think with all the chatter going on about climate that we’d all have a good understanding on the elements of…
People Of Color Don’t Get Credit For Climate Concern
People Of Color Don’t Get Credit For Climate Concern
by U. Oregon
While their contributions to the climate change movement remain largely unrecognized, people of color are just as…
New Research Shows That Antarctica's Largest Floating Ice Shelf Is Highly Sensitive To Warming Of The Ocean
New Research Shows That Antarctica's Largest Floating Ice Shelf Is Highly Sensitive To Warming Of The Ocean
by Dan Lowry
Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution…
It'll Be Hard, But We Can Feed The World With Plant Protein
It'll Be Hard, But We Can Feed The World With Plant Protein
by Richard Trethowan
A UN report released last week found a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions come from the food chain, particularly…
Underground Water Sources For Billions Could Take More Than A Century To Respond Fully To Climate Change
Underground Water Sources For Billions Could Take More Than A Century To Respond Fully To Climate Change
by Mark O. Cuthbert, et al
Groundwater is the biggest store of accessible freshwater in the world, providing billions of people with water for…
Why Is The Australian Energy Regulator Suing Wind Farms?
Why Is The Australian Energy Regulator Suing Wind Farms?
by Samantha Hepburn
The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) is suing four of the wind farms involved in the 2016 South Australian blackout -…
Groundwater Reserves In Africa May Be More Resilient To Climate Change Than First Thought
Groundwater Reserves In Africa May Be More Resilient To Climate Change Than First Thought
by Mark O. Cuthbert and Richard Taylor
Groundwater reserves in Africa are estimated to be 20 times larger than the water stored in lakes and reservoirs above…
Australia Urgently Needs Real Sustainable Agriculture Policy
Australia Urgently Needs Real Sustainable Agriculture Policy
by InnerSelf Staff
Australia has made a global commitment to “sustainable agriculture”, an endeavour seen as increasingly crucial to…