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Prescribed burns can prevent wildfires. Here's why they don't get done more often

As wildfires have become more severe over the past several years, researchers are taking a new look at the role of prescribed burns in trying to reduce their number. A  paper in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment makes the argument that prescribed burns can — and should — be used more often.

John Williams is an ecologist at University of California, Davis and project scientist in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy. He spoke with The Show about this new research and the conversation started with what questions he was trying to answer here.

JOHN WILLIAMS: Well, we’ve been monitoring prescribed fire, mostly California for the last five years. And basically we’ve been putting in these monitoring plots across the state. And less than 50% of those plots have burned. And so we’ve seen a whole number of reasons why the prescribed fire that’s been planned isn’t happening. It’s not getting done.

And we wanted to examine that in light of the importance of prescribed fire in doing a few things. One is reducing the risk of high severity fire, and second is restoring the natural fire processes for these ecosystems that are adapted to fire and have experienced fire suppression for a long time — in some cases over 100 years.

MARK BRODIE: Well, so why did you see that some of these prescribed burns weren’t happening?

WILLIAMS: There’s a bunch of reasons. Some of them are weather related. And so climate and extreme fire years. So 2020, for example, is the biggest fire year on record for California. And when it’s hot and dry and the wildfires are burning, all the resources that would be available for prescribed fire are basically being usurped by the need to put out wildfire and to suppress wildfire.

So that’s on the resource side. On the other side is just the fire weather itself makes it unsafe to do these prescribed fires. It’s usually a certain level of relative humidity, cooler temperatures, minimal winds so that you can achieve your objectives rather than run the risk of having that fire get out of control and become a wildfire itself.

BRODIE: So this maybe falls specifically on the resource side, but maybe expands beyond that: I wonder if the fact that “wildfire season” has been extended in many places, does that reduce the time windows in which you can do prescribed burns and maybe — to the point you were making about weather conditions needing to be right — does it maybe make it harder to do prescribed burns in the times when it’s ideal to do them if there are also actual wildfires happening at those same times?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Absolutely. So generally, the prescribed fire happens either in the spring or the fall when temperatures are cooler and the humidity levels are up a little bit. And as that wild, sort of the hot dry conditions extend later in the fall and start earlier and in the summer, that kind of squeezes the prescribed burn season. And that’s especially aggravated by the fact that a lot of people that would normally be available to conduct prescribed fires are seasonal employees. This is especially the case in the Forest Service, Park Service. There’s a lot of seasonal employment as it is as we get into winter months, for example, they’re furloughed for the season because they’re not not year-round hires.

And so one of the things we talk about in the article is the need to establish a year-round prescribed fire force, so that as that fire season sort of pushes into the extent of of when seasonal employees are available, we could then shift to maybe a year round force that would be available also a year-round force that is dedicated to prescribed fire so that they don’t get pulled off onto wildfires.

BRODIE: What kind of resources would that entail? Like, if you’re basically setting up a new division within the Forest Service or wherever it would be, what kind of resources would it take to make sure that there was a group of people with the money and equipment they need to just focus on prescribed burns?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it would require establishing these permanent positions, and … it could be a cooperative type force in the sense of it doesn’t necessarily have to be just Forest Service or just Park Service or just Cal Fire. And that’s one of the other things we suggest in the article is the need to really collaborate in terms of resources and personnel. But it would take additional money.

But there’s certainly — I mean, some 30 million acres in California alone are in need of, basically they’re beyond a normal fire return interval. So there’s a huge need for it. And so we can definitely keep them busy. But it would require additional resources.

BRODIE: Yeah. I wonder if it would also require maybe a culture shift within the Forest Service. You mentioned fire suppression, which has been the policy for so long. If you were to really focus and maybe even have a dedicated force focused on prescribed burns, would that require maybe a change in thinking among fire managers as well?

WILLIAMS: For sure, and especially at the upper levels. And it’s not just the Forest Service, it’s it’s Forest Service, it’s Cal Fire — there are definitely ecologists and a lot of prescribed burners in Cal Fire, but it’s fundamentally a fire suppression agency. And so across these agencies, there’s a need for a cultural shift where rather than saying, “OK, under what conditions is prescribed fire acceptable?” start to ask, why didn’t we get more prescribed fire done? What were the conditions that made for exceptional circumstances that we couldn’t do burning?

BRODIE: Do you have a sense of how far behind we are in terms of doing the prescribed burns that would really make an appreciable difference to try to mitigate against large, massive severe wildfires?

WILLIAMS: Yeah, it’s a good question. As I mentioned earlier, in California alone, there’s 30 million acres of forest that their natural fire cycle is on average somewhere between 5 and 35 years. And so some of those forests haven’t burned in 100 years. So it’s going to be a long time before we catch up enough and we have the work force enough to address this on the entire landscape level.

So I think really right now we’re more — to be honest and more realistic, I think the likelihood is we’re going to have to concentrate on high-value areas, areas where we have assets, where prescribed fires is giving us a little bit of a buffer. And and in the meantime, we’re going to have to let wildfire kind of take care of some of the rest. So we just don’t have the capacity, and we’re not going to have the capacity for a while.

BRODIE: You need to prioritize where you can do the most good immediately and then get to the rest of it later.

WILLIAMS: Exactly. And those are, as I said, those are the places like the wildland urban interface, where we have where people have homes. It’s areas of at-risk wildlife or high-value watersheds, upper levels of watersheds. Spotted owl or Pacific fisher are two wildlife species, for example, that there’s a mandate to pay attention to as far their habitat and how at-risk that is for fire. But at least in the short term, we’re going to have to kind of address those needs.

BRODIE: All right. That is John Williams, an ecologist and project scientist in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California, Davis. John, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

WILLIAMS: Thanks so much.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.