By Courtney Schultz, Colorado State University; Cassandra Moseley, University of Oregon, and Heidi Huber-Stearns, University of Oregon.

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

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.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Around this area they over-do the controlled burning….way too often, and it is really ridiculous to burn areas right next to where visitors to the state park camp. Who in the world would want to camp there with black burned areas right next to them, with the soot blowing around. Seems like poor management. How many species of wildlife get trapped in the fires, with no way out, and get burned alive, with the aerial dropping of balls of accelerant? There is no end to the deliberate burning of this area’s forest, or what is left of the forests around here, after all the home building going on.

  2. I spent Easter weekend in NC and SC. It was a long ride but it was refreshing to see all the trees, swamps, and deltas from north Florida all the way to NC. A lot of trees were being harvested for timber along the interstate roadways, and there was so many tall pine trees down along the highways from high winds with some right almost in the highways, at least their tree tops. I only saw one dead deer downed, and I think the deer was hit by a car, and wasn’t shot. Strange to see a lot of pine trees growing right out in swampy waters being harvested and cut in Georgia. I didn’t think pines grew in standing water, but those trees were. We by-passed Jacksonville, but coming back late into the night to get back home, there was almost zero traffic. It was Easter night and no one was on the highways hardly at all. I turned on my cell phone and that is when I then learned about the suicide bombing of the churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Such a shame….earlier I saw all the beautiful big churches in NC with most decorated with big crosses decorated with purple cloth and covered in flowers, then late into the night of Easter, I learned of the bombings and the deaths of people worshipping….I have no words as to how it affected me. I got to put flowers on my parents graves. I saw this little praying hands figurine and another little cherub angel figurine and I thought well, someone must have put something on my parents grave…..then it dawned on me, OMG, I put those there 13 years ago, and they were still there.!…unbelievable, I had forgotten putting them there. I saw my grandparents graves too, and my uncles graves also. I couldn’t help but notice that the entire cemetery, although full of flowers, it had no Easter lilies, real, or artificial. There were the most beautiful roses growing in the Carolinas, looked like KnockOut Roses, not sure, but if they were, they were definitely way more beautiful than the KnockOut roses around here, don’t know why….some were big as good sized trees. I was in awe. I got to see the engraved bricks that I had ordered for my dad, and my uncle that were placed in the veteran memorial park from where I was from. I had ordered them years ago, but just now got to view them and to see the veteran’s park the tiown built. I went to visit my cousin in NC and rode way way out in the country, to where my grandparents used to have their 116 acre farm, but I didn’t get to go by the location, as the state had the roads blocked and where doing some kind of work back in there. I have been told the state owns the land now where their farm was. Local traffic only was allowed, but the roads were rough, and they had granite rocks poured in there and as we started back in the boonies out there, rocks started flying up on my car, and I said forget it. Strangely, that whole area is still remote, and totally agriculture, like time stopped still there. We talked to some farmers moving their cow herds from one side of the road to the other, and there was no traffic back in there. It was a good trip, but I have no plans to go back again, anytime soon, too far, but the areas where I went to school and my old stomping grounds, OMG, I could not believe the development of every kind of corporate business you could think of, and huge big expensive housing developments, everywhere, I was in for a shock! It is not just here that all the building is going on………

  3. I got myself another dog since my little Joey Bo Bo Buttafucco died. My husband bought him as a gift for me… This one we got is a Malti-poo too, and a male, like Joey. This one is cream colored, not white like Joey, and he is way smaller, and I don’t think he is going to get much bigger. He weighs four pounds. He is a puppy and will be 6 months old at the end of this month. He is in his chewing stage, and I have to watch him constantly, as he will put anything into his mouth. I named him Prince Giorgio, and call him Giorgi, for short. He has two moods, angelic, and devil, no in- between. We took him with us to NC and had to find a motel that was dog friendly. He is one character, and is not afraid of anything. He is way shorter than Joey. Joey had a long body. I don’t think I am going to be able to dress him up in cute outfits like Joey strutted around in, because Giorgi tries chewing up any outfits I dress him in……lol He doesn’t sing like Joey did with me, or spin or dance, but he is learning, as he is just a little boy.

  4. We had went to OCAS and the Pet Alliance to try to find a dog that was in need of rescue and a small dog I would like. Pet Alliance had about 7 small dogs rescued from puppy mills that they brought back from Georgia to adopt out. I would have rescued and adopted a couple of them, but they would not even let me near them, even though they wanted to be friendly, they just did not trust anyone. It was truly pitiful. Another just sat and would not connect with anyone. Both shelters had some smaller dogs, but I looked on the monitor and they all had been spoken for. There was a 15 year old Pom Pom dog that just cried and cried and the notes said it was a stray…..how could that be? It was on tramadol for pain, and had health problems, and it’s cry was so pitiful, as it did not sound like a cry, I am not sure exactly what it sounded like…..I said I didn’t care how old he was, that I would adopt him, as I felt so sorry for the little thing, but someone else had already put in to adopt him. There were other heartbreaking dogs, there too. It breaks my heart to go to the shelters, and so many big dogs, and aggressive dogs there too. I tried, but couldn’t find a poodle type, or Maltese type dog, so I know I am considered a bad person for having one purchased for our family. I did try to adopt a rescue dog though. Peta would crucify me, I know, I know…….

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