Another national news story has highlighted (again) just how much work remains as we work to build communities and regions that are more resilient toward wildfire.
This most recent story, by Associated Press reporter Brian Melley, began with an account of a recent prescribed burn (what we used to call a "controlled" burn) in Kings Canyon National Park in California. In Kings Canyon, firefighters gathered in June to burn different segments along a narrow strip of pines, cedars and manzanita between the raging Kings River and a road that ends in the canyon. As other firefighters stood by to douse any escaping embers, members of the park's Arrowhead Hot Shots used torches to ignite dry pine needles, twigs and other accumulated material. At the end, the low-intensity fire had burned grasses, pine cones and dead branches, with the idea being to remove the sort of undergrowth that could fuel a much more destructive wildfire.
Over two days, the fire had burned through some 218 acres, which was the goal for this particular blaze. That's the good news.
Here's the bad news: The 218 acres represented just 10% of the annual goal for prescribed fires in Kings Canyon and neighboring Sequoia National Park. And a spokesman for the parks said that, ideally, the parks would burn 10,000 or more acres a year.
It's another vivid example of a tendency that was noted earlier this year by Crystal Kolden, a University of Idaho forest and fire policy researcher, who published a study in April in the journal Fire. Her conclusion: Despite years of scientific research pointing to prescribed burns as a successful method of clearing brush and restoring ecosystems, intentional fire-setting by federal agencies in the West has declined over the last 20 years. And federal money for controlled burns has been "drastically depleted" over the last two decades, she found.
"They know they need to be doing more prescribed fire, they want to be doing more prescribed fire," Kolden said of federal land managers. "They are simply unable to accomplish that."
Part of the problem here, of course, is that many Westerners remain wary of prescribed fires. We've all heard about so-called "controlled" burns that got out of control, with occasionally disastrous results, such as a 2012 Colorado fire that burst through its lines and killed three people and destroyed or damaged two dozen homes.
But we've also heard, every year, about increasingly destructive wildfires such as last November's Paradise fire, which leveled a town in California and killed 86 people. After that fire, California forest managers prioritized nearly three dozen fuel-reduction projects that all could involve some use of fire.
We've also heard complaints about prescribed burns filling our skies with smoke. It is true that we have a growing appreciation for the health hazards of wildfire smoke — but it's also true that fire managers are considerably more sophisticated today in terms of managing the smoke from prescribed burns. In fact, Oregon recently changed its air quality rules for planned fires, with the idea being that a little off-season smoke, carefully managed, is a better bet than raging wildfires choking our summertime skies with smoke for weeks on end.
Other argue that prescribed burns aren't appropriate for all areas. That may be true — but that's not a sufficient reason to rule out the controlled use of fire throughout the U.S. West.
In previous editorials, we've written about how our increasingly lengthy fire seasons (and the increasingly intense wildfires that are part of those seasons) are shaping a new reality in the West. Part of that reality may be a more nuanced understanding of the role fire plays in our ecosystems. It's not necessarily intuitive, this notion that a bit of fire in the off-season may help prevent massive summertime fires, but it's part of our new reality as well. (mm)