Why We Disagree About Fuel Treatments: VIII. Need For Change: Embracing Prescribed Fire

We’ve talked about people who are doing fuel treatments successfully (the watershed examples here and here). But in some parts of the country, as we will see in future posts, it is really really difficult to do, for a variety of reasons we’ll explore. As folks have described to me some of the difficulties, I’ve asked them “why don’t we just give up with prescribed burning and vegetation treatments? and stick to Firewise + Suppression alone?”. It’s so… hard…

The Forest Service says they want to put more fire on the landscape, but they are not aligned (in at least some areas) to produce those results, other than through WFU. Perhaps EPA is not aligned to produce those results, and so on. As I’ve asked fire scientists, they tend to say things like:

1. You are thereby putting all the pressure on suppression folks, and not giving them areas that can help them. You are removing a key tool from their toolkit.

2. Wildfires can have negative impacts on infrastructure, species, watersheds, people and so on, and..

3. Controlled burns can produce reduction in fuels, plus conditions things for fire-dependent species with fewer (different) risks.

Here’s how Washington Prescribed Fire Council put it:

Rediscover Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is the planned, professional application of fire in the right place, at the right time. It is a safe, effective process that has been sidelined for the last 100 years as we suppressed wildfire on a state and national level.

Fire suppression was intended to keep people safer and industry thriving, but over time, has actually resulted in the reverse: unprecedented forest density, stockpiled fuels, and diseased, degraded forests that are more likely to burn hot, fast and out of control. Recent wildfires have been especially devastating for Washington: lost lives, lost homes, shuttered businesses, millions and millions spent.

There has to be a better way, and there is. It’s time to embrace prescribed fire.

Here’s Calfire’s comprehensive list again:

Management objectives:

Reduction of conflagration fires.
Optimization of soil and water productivity.
Protection and improvement of intrinsic floral and faunal values.
Sub-Goals:

Reduce the number and intensity of large, damaging wildfires with corresponding savings of suppression costs.
Increase public safety.
Increase water quantity and maintain water quality from managed watersheds.
Decrease the potential for damage from flooding and siltation.
Protect and improve soil productivity, and decrease erosion over the long term.
Improve wildlife and fisheries habitat.
Improve oak woodlands through fire management and regeneration.
Establish and maintain desired plant communities.
Propagate rare or endangered species of plants, which are fire dependent.
Improve air quality over the long term.
Improve forage and browse for livestock.
Increase opportunities for recreation and improve scenic vistas.
Decrease the risk to firefighters and other responders during wildland fires.
Provide training opportunities for personnel in incident organization, operations, fire behavior, firing methods and effects of weather influences.
.

So before we go on, for the reasons outlined here (and other reasons you might add or rephrase) do you agree that it is important to increase (embrace) prescribed burning? Why or why not?

3 Comments

  1. Here in California, yes, we should be doing more, especially in the Sierra Nevada National Forests. Their acreages are pretty pitiful, Statewide. When you compare the combined acreage of around 15,000 acres with the 650,000 acres done in Region 8, you can see there is quite a bottleneck in getting stuff burned. There are all sorts of unacceptable excuses, including spending so much on wildfires. Our country chooses to spend so much, being reactive, instead of being proactive.

  2. During the collaboration meetings I participated in, prescribed fire was always part of the “mix” of treatments. Even the timber representative “embraced” it. Participants were cautioned, however, not to rely on the agency’s ability to implement the level​ of fire treatments we were proposing. At least as I understand it, a wide range of variables limit it’s use. Wind, relative humidity, too wet/too dry, air quality and ability to coordinate w/ state/local agencies are a few in a very long list. I think it would be interesting and useful if NCFP blog regulars surveyed their local RD to find out how many days were available for burning during the last year, and if it was sufficient to get all of the planned fire treatments compleated. IMO, we should “embrace” prescribed fire but not over estimate its usefulness.

  3. Thanks Brian! It sounds to me as if the “days for burning” may also depend on air quality concerns that vary by state and by time period and by pilot programs and ideas. Remember this article from 2014?

    ” “You’re trying to do burns in smaller chunks, under favorable conditions, so that you avoid larger burns under unfavorable conditions,” said smoke management specialist Mike Broughton of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who monitors emissions from fires nationwide.

    More of the controlled burns will boost both ecosystems and safety, Broughton said. “It makes it easier to keep a wildfire from becoming a massive wildfire.”

    Recent CDPHE air tests found that even controlled burns on less than 50 acres produce particulate air pollution near homes at levels exceeding health standards. Average particulate levels reached 257 micrograms per cubic meter during recent burns, seven times higher than the 35-microgram federal standard.

    “They are certainly troubling numbers. … We still have a responsibility to protect public health,” CDPHE smoke program leader Pat McLaughlin said.

    However, the huge uncontrolled wildfires that increasingly plague Colorado also produce heavy smoke. The 215-square-mile Hayman fire led to 2002’s worst air quality in Denver even though it was burning 100 miles away. Smoke from the 2012 High Park and Waldo Canyon fires put particulates at 67 micrograms in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs — nearly as bad as Beijing.”

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