In light of the many destructive fires still burning in California, it might seem like a no-brainer that fires such as these could be made less severe by a more effective and frequent use of controlled burns and selective thinning of the forest and brush. But although that idea appears to be basically correct, the situation isn’t so simple, nor is it so easy to achieve these burns.

California’s fire chief has been willing to increase the number of planned burns:

“Putting prescribed fire back out on the landscape at a pace and scale to get real work done and to actually make a difference is a high priority,” says Cal Fire chief Ken Pimlott. “It really is, and it’s going to take a lot of effort.”

In a February report, the watchdog Little Hoover Commission concluded that the way California landowners have collectively managed forests is an “unprecedented catastrophe.” In May, Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order to improve forest management, and with it, a dramatic change.

…Pimlott says that Cal Fire intends to triple the amount of prescribed fire on lands the state controls.

“We can prevent these large catastrophic fires or at least reduce the intensity when fires do occur,” he says. “So a little bit of smoke now and a little bit of inconvenience now is well worth offsetting these large damaging fires.”

There are obstacles to accomplishing this, however. It is not that easy to control a burn while at the same time making sure it is effective:

Even with approval, federal wildland managers waited months for the right weather and environmental conditions here. Hinckley says those criteria range from wind speed and temperature, to how much water is in the soil…

Thick vegetation in the understory is a limiting factor, too. Hinckley says her crews often need to chop and flatten vegetation to make safe conditions for burning.

Even when all of the stars align, Hinckley says she might not have warm bodies for the job. That happened last fall when fires up and down the state kept fire crews hamstrung…

Even when the permit is done and the weather is right and crews are available, the air might already be too polluted to add more smoke to the mix…

“We have to protect public health; that’s our mandate,” says Dar Mims, a meteorologist with the California Air Resources Board. “But we also recognize that we need burning in the forest, and a lot of those trade-offs have to happen in real time”…

The public gets upset when there are a lot of burn days, but there needs to be more education about why it’s important to do it anyway, plus the fact that there’s less air pollution from a controlled burn than from a wildfire.

There’s much more at the link, and I strongly suggest you read it.

There are dissenting opinions, however, about the value of thinning. Here’s one of them; the basic thrust of that article, however, is that thinning (another supposed forest-control strategy) is not particularly effective in reducing the severity of major forest fires out West. Suffice to say that many disagree.

Here’s what that same article has to say about controlled burning:

No one wants to be the person who signed off on a prescribed burn and then had it get away and burn homes to the ground. However, when conditions are good for controlling a blaze, they are usually not good for fire spread.

There has been a movement in Congress to allow more thinning and less interference from environmental groups:

Members of the Western Caucus have proposed legislation to dramatically change the way forests are managed. If passed, this bill would give power back to local authorities and allow for more aggressive forest thinning without subjecting them to the most onerous of environmental reviews.

While state and federal governments can take measures to enhance forest and wilderness management, private management can also get involved to improve conditions.

One idea is to adopt a policy popularized by the school choice movement: create charter forests that are publicly owned, but privately managed. This would allow forest management to move away from top-down, bureaucratic control to a decentralized and varied system that may better conform with local realities.

Maybe the current fires will jump-start the implementation of better solutions. Knowing how bureaucracies work, however (and the extreme leftward tilt of the California state government and population), one shouldn’t bet on it. There’s also the specter of lawsuits like one in Oakland, California, where a very small group of homeowners managed (against the wishes of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, who wanted even more trees cut than proposed) to halt the cutting of eucalyptus trees on the site of a catastrophic fire decades earlier (see also this).

But maybe there’s reason for hope. For example, this article that appeared in the very leftist Mother Jones last year advocates an increase in controlled burns:

Addressing the problem will require a revolution in land management and in people’s relationship with fire — and there are signs both may be beginning.

As a child in Southern California, Berleman was deeply afraid of wildfire. But at community college, she learned that Native Americans used fire for thousands of years to manage forests and grasslands and protect their villages. Tribes regularly burned California’s oak woodlands, for instance, to remove underbrush and fight pests. It helped them spot prey more easily, keep weevils out of the acorns they gathered for food, and safeguard their homes from wildfire. In 2009, Berleman transferred to the University of California, Berkeley to study fire ecology. There, she worked on her first prescribed burn. “I instantly fell in love with the ability to use fire in a positive way to accomplish objectives,” she says. She trained as a firefighter so she could put fire to use as a land-management tool.

That entire article is worth reading because it indicates a number of ways in which the left—which, after all, is in the driver’s seat in California—could see its way towards supporting a much more aggressive use of controlled burns. One form of appeal might be to point out that Native Americans did it. Another piece of useful knowledge in appealing to the left would be that the major incredibly hot and uncontrolled wildfires of late are the ones that release a lot of carbon. Controlled burns are very different, and they often preserve the trees themselves, so their carbon footprint is not so onerous, and that knowledge should appeal to those concerned about global warming.

The article agrees that although thinning has some benefits, controlled burns are a more effective way to go:

North says thinning is not a solution for much of the Sierra Nevada. Only 28 percent of the landscape can be mechanically thinned, he calculated; the rest is too steep or remote…

Official Forest Service policy has acknowledged this. The 2014 interagency National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy calls for expanding the use of prescribed burns and letting more wildfires burn. “It’s just not being followed; that’s the real problem,” North says. “Everyone knows what we’ve got to do. But it’s not being done.”

Why isn’t more being done? A big role is played by increased house-building in areas near or even in forests, and the fear of lawsuits from homeowners if planned fires get out of control and do damage to human dwellings. Even some conservationists are on board with controlled burns:

Craig Thomas, conservation director of Sierra Forest Legacy, has been calling for more natural and prescribed fire in the Sierra for two decades. He believes that after the Rim, Rough and King fires, the public and policymakers better understand the threat of unnaturally overgrown forests.

That was written before the current fires, and so I imagine that at this point the public understands the problem even better. The article goes on to say that since 2015 the area of California in which fires are allowed to burn without stopping them has increased, and the number of controlled burns has increased as well. It seems that it would be a good thing if the recent horrific fires in both northern and southern California motivated residents of the state to accept more of the inconvenience and expense of controlled burns, in order to offset the far more catastrophic effects of major and uncontrolled forest conflagrations that spread to population centers.

[Neo is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at the new neo.]


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