The right fire to fight fire — why limiting prescribed burning is short-sighted
Balancing near-term costs and benefits with long-term costs and benefits is an ancient and common challenge. Many of us invest scarce resources now in exchange for long-term gains or, conversely, pass on near-term gains for the greater good. A recent policy letter from the Forest Service chief to stop “managing fire for resource benefit” (fire use) and requiring regional forester approval for prescribed burning is erroneously cast in this light: The risk of near-term escape and/or damage is not worth the gains either from fire use during incidents as a containment strategy or from manager-ignited prescribed burning. In fact, however, the opposite is true. More of the right kind of fire is our only way out of suppression pathology.
Certainly, we recognize the underlying rationale to address short-term risks of escaped prescribed fires, errors in fire use and prolonged wildfires in general. However, no matter where you are in the western U.S., the 2021 wildfire season will be longer than it was in the 1980s or even the early 2000s. Longer, hotter and drier fire seasons are exacerbating our many-decades battle to exclude fire from these flammable ecosystems. If there were alternatives to burning, then it is not something anyone would choose. But the extensive and growing acreages of wildfire burning regardless of ignition source and attempts to suppress them show the first flaw in the decision to limit fire use and prescribed burning: the assumption that it significantly impacts this situation at all. The contribution of fire-use and prescribed fire acres to annual estimates of burned area regionally and nationally is minimal.
Locally, suppression can be significant. But any extinguished fire this year locally leaves an area to burn in the future. Ideally, that future burning would follow some fuels reduction treatments and/or would happen under more moderate weather conditions. In reality, however, the amount of active land/fuels management on federal land does not even keep pace with annual vegetation growth much less the accumulated fuels from decades of fire suppression — we are losing ground on that front. Climate change is only making the problem worse, and these two realities dismantle any case for delaying fire.
The return to old suppression thinking, even if temporary, will significantly limit options for local, professional land managers during a time when increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration and fuel reduction is of critical importance. Returning decision-making about managed fire and prescribed burning to the district level is fundamental to escaping the trap of full suppression. Fire behavior is regulated by the interaction of topography, weather and fuels, all of which vary at small temporal and spatial scales that only local managers can understand.
Land managers need this flexibility and sufficient resources to take advantage of favorable conditions for burning, even if another part of the country or region is having an extreme wildfire season. For example, there are years when southern California is having a significant wildfire season in the fall and conditions for prescribed burning are perfect in the Sierra Nevada a couple hundred miles north. The Forest Service chief’s order prevents the ability to take advantage of burn windows. If we seek to modify the way fire burns across our landscapes, we cannot afford to lose any management opportunities.
And we need to properly fund resource land managers. We now spend billions of dollars every year trying to suppress wildfires; the only way to change the equation is to simultaneously spend billions to reintroduce fire. As the land area where the right kinds of fire have burned increases, suppression costs will decrease. Investing in forest restoration show clear economic gains.
Part of this investment is in workforce development and the professionalization of fire management. Rep. Tom McClintock’s (R-Calif.) characterization of fire personnel as unskilled labor could not be further from the truth. Competent fire management, whether suppression or prescribed burning, requires an understanding of physics, chemistry, meteorology and forestry to understand and model how a fire will behave. Our choices are to manage fuels and fires in order to change the way wildfire behaves, or we will continue suffering its impacts indefinitely.
Given all the challenges limiting the pace and scale of restoration thinning and prescribed burning, managing natural ignitions during conditions that are within prescription is the only way to accomplish the volume of needed work, especially on steeper ground and in remote areas. Restoration thinning and prescribed burning are important tools that will be crucial for helping define landscape-scale fuel breaks, escape routes, safety zones and containment perimeters — this will allow fire managers to achieve resource benefit from natural ignitions.
Managing fire is not without risks, and suppression efforts can move in tandem with fire use to herd wildfires, but only with local awareness and decisions can we minimize the near-term risk of damage. More importantly, “good” burning minimizes the cumulative long-term wildfire risks relative to continuing to try and suppress all fires moving into an increasingly climate-stressed future. Record-setting wildfire events that escape suppression more and more frequently are a testament to why a continued policy of full suppression is unsustainable.
We have far too much fuel stored in most of our forested landscapes, and when combined with extreme fire weather, default fire suppression policies put us all at risk. The U.S. Forest Service, together with other federal land management agencies, state partners, local leaders and residents can make decisions about fire management. Citizens of fire-prone western communities can learn about their local ecology and support the science-based forest management that helps protect our communities and leads to improved forest condition. Citizens of the eastern U.S. can consider how they are impacted by wildfire, as well.
The number of examples of successfully fire use, both managing natural ignitions and prescribed fire, far exceeds the few cases with negative outcomes. We can all embrace the success of science-based management, fund it adequately and recognize that local decisions about the appropriate times to burn or manage an ignition will lead to better outcomes. A fear-driven, centralized strategy is doomed.
John Bailey, Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, where he teaches silviculture and fire management. He and his students/research team explore the specifics of various fuels and forest restoration options, their effect on forest ecosystems and subsequent fire behavior, wildfire risk analyses and reduction strategies as well as post-fire ecosystem recovery and management.
Matthew Hurteau, Ph.D., is a professor of biology at the University of New Mexico. He studies wildfire and climate change impacts on forests.