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This Was a Good Year for Prescribed Burns. Why Didn't California Do More?

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Firefighters in yellow jackets and helmets hike up a hill into a gray mist.
Marin County firefighters hike up a hill during a controlled burn training on June 16, 2023 in San Rafael.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For forest managers to conduct prescribed burns, weather conditions have to be just right: not too hot or windy.

“Not too damp, but also not too dry. Just right, Goldilocks, in the middle,” said UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain.

Overall, experts say more prescribed burning is needed across California to prevent out-of-control megafires. That fact is even more pronounced in cool, wet years like this one.

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Mild weather conditions provided the perfect backdrop for fire agencies to conduct large-scale controlled burns, which help prevent extreme wildfires.

“Most days this year that were favorable for it, there really wasn’t much-prescribed fire activity,” Swain said.

Prescribed burning is expected to get harder with climate change. New research shows the number of safe burn days across the West is expected to drop by 17% by the year 2060. The Bay Area could lose as many as 30 ideal burn days each year.

“If we’re already not doing enough, and climate change is going to come along and make it significantly harder, then what hope do we have for really scaling this up in the way that many ecologists and fire scientists think we should be doing?” said Swain, who co-authored the research.

For a century, California has suppressed wildfires. Today, the state’s forests are overgrown and littered with fuel — primed to burn. Ecologists and Indigenous tribal groups have long criticized forest managers for not using “good fire,” as it’s sometimes called, to help keep forests in check.

“The floors are littered with trees and brush and invasive species that have taken over,” said Yurok tribe member Elizabeth Azzuz. “When that happens, it kills all the native and indigenous plants in the understory.”

Azzuz directs Indigenous and family burning for the Cultural Fire Management Council and facilitates controlled burns on Yurok tribal land located in far Northern California along the Klamath Basin. Typically, they can only conduct two burns per year. But this year, given the weather, they managed to squeeze in one additional burn in June.

“It’s rare that we get a June burn window, very rare,” she said.

The state’s fire agency did conduct prescribed burns this year — though fewer than normal, said Gregg Bratcher, who oversees Cal Fire’s prescribed fire program in Sacramento.

“This year was rough,” he said. “By the time we were getting windows to actually get some prescribed fire done, we were walking into fire season.”

While the climate models may have shown wide open windows for controlled burns, Bratcher said the rainy, wet winter and spring months made it difficult to light fires.

“We lost a lot of burn days because it was just too wet,” he said.

All that rain did tamp down California’s wildfire season this year. The state experienced far fewer and less destructive fires. Lightning touched off some of the biggest ones that burned across remote areas in Northern California.

Due to safe weather conditions and their remoteness, forest managers and tribes allowed them to burn.

“These fires have been doing really important work,” said Tony Marks-Block, ecological anthropologist at CSU East Bay, adding that these types of ecologically beneficial fire have been largely eliminated by fire suppression since last century. “In future years when lightning strikes again, or there’s an accidental fire initiated by a person, that fire will not be as extreme because there’s less fuel to burn.”

Smoke from those fires did drift down and dirty the air across the Bay Area for several days in September. Marks-Block said these kinds of low severity fires can produce poor air quality but “they reduce the likelihood of future catastrophic fire events and longer periods of poor air quality.”

Californians might need to get used to shorter periods of semi-regular, smoky conditions to avoid weeks-long stretches of choking, hazardous air like the Bay Area lived through during the firestorms of 2020.

Going forward, Cal Fire’s Bratcher said the agency may have to rely more on managing the forest by hand during wet years like this one, using chainsaws and wood chippers.

“The landscape will dictate what tools in the toolbox we can use,” he said.

While prescribed burning is one of the best ways to manage the forests, they can’t rely on it exclusively.

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