Should We Fight Wildfires With Controlled Burns?

Living with catastrophic wildfires has become an unfortunate reality for many residents of the United States, particularly in the West. And climate change has made the fire season even longer and more intense than previous years. Deliberately setting “good fires,” or prescribed burns, could help prevent future fires by clearing away unwanted brush and debris. But organizing controlled burns is a lot of work, and it has its risks, too.

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Do other areas of the country use prescribed burns?

There is a variety of techniques to prevent forest fires, including prescribed burns, where fires are deliberately set to help remove unwanted brush and debris. The safest way is to do it by hand with tools and crews, but that’s also very labor intensive and expensive. You can also use animals to nibble away at vegetation, too. But it’s not realistic to deal with millions of acres of potential fuel this way, so prescribed fire is the least expensive, best tool that managers can use to reduce vegetation.

In the Southeast, prescribed burns are used much more often--even though they’re prone to fewer fires. People are just more used to the practice, more tolerant of smoke and it helps support the local timber industry. And the laws are different. If you do a burn in Florida, for example, and you’ve done it correctly, the state will step in and cover the liability if the burn gets out of control and does some damage. This doesn’t happen a lot, but it can happen. That's not the case in California, and it can make people scared to do prescribed burns –– even if they’re our best way to prevent future catastrophic fires.

How much excess vegetation that’s potentially flammable does California have?

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As much as 20 million acres of federal, state or private land across the state has potential fuel that needs to be treated to reduce the risk of wildfires. That’s nearly two-thirds of the state’s 33 million acres of forests and trees.

How much more harmful is wildfire smoke vs. prescribed fire smoke? And I don’t live in a region with wildfires. Why does this matter to me?

A recent study concluded wildfire smoke contains three times as much pollution as smoke from prescribed fires. When Australia had a massive gigafire in 2020 –– it was its largest bushfire to date that incinerated over 1.5 million acres –– NASA said the smoke produced by that inferno traveled at least one full circuit around the globe. This creates serious health risks both locally and all around the world.

SOURCES

KQED Science Wildfire Coverage https://www.kqed.org/science/category/wildfires

Danielle Venton https://www.kqed.org/author/dventon

KQED News Wildfire Coverage

USGS Wildland Fire Science

U.S. Forest Service Wildland Fire https://www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/fire

Study: Airborne measurements of western U.S. wildfire emissions: Comparison with prescribed burning and air quality implications https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2016JD026315