When you start fires to prevent fires
Welcome back to The Planet You Save, your weekly newsletter on local climate action.
Today is an extra-special edition: I'm partnering with another writer to help you understand a key climate adaptation that seems counterintuitive: Settings fires to slow wildfires. If you got this email as a forward, you can sign up for this newsletter here.
(all photos in this story of a prescribed fire in early 2022 by Colleen Hagerty)
Colleen Hagerty is a fellow independent journalist and former colleague at the BBC's Washington bureau. Colleen is a great all-around journalist, but since she's struck out on her own, she's developed a unique reporting beat: disasters. But she's no tornado chaser — Colleen's work is focused on how we prepare for and manage disaster, as well as the communities that form afterwards and the long-term implications for hard-hit places. Like me, she also runs a weekly newsletter, the aptly titled My World's on Fire.
We also both live in California, and over the past few years, our chosen reporting areas and lived experience have overlapped with the relentlessness of wildfires. We've been talking about collaborating on a newsletter issue for a while, but Colleen's recent reporting trip inspired a solution-oriented topic that just made sense: prescribed fire.
Confused? Read on; we'll make you prescribed fire experts. (And yes, the local climate links will also make an appearance at the end).
How did we get here?
Before digging into the details of prescribed fire, it’s important to understand how the current wildfire landscape has strayed from the historical norm. Many of today’s wildfires are burning bigger and hotter, and the idea of a dependable “fire season” is one of the past, with wildfires stretching into traditionally quieter winter and spring months.
Clearly, you don’t have to take our word for it — the past five years of unprecedented fires across the West offer ample proof of this change.
It’s a shift that has been a century in the making, influenced by a series of human actions. One major driver in the US was the federal policy of suppressing all fires as quickly as possible, which was implemented following some particularly devastating fires in the early 1900s. This went against the Indigenous practice of targeted burning to protect lands, manage vegetation, and keep underground water tables stable.
“We have been working with fire for tens of thousands of years,” says Margo Robbins, a cultural leader of the Yurok Tribe and co-founder of the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network (IPBN). “There's nobody who knows better than us what our land needs and how to take care of it.”
Through the genocide, displacement, and disenfranchisement of Indigenous people, as well as the adoption of those strict suppression policies, US officials largely stripped the land of fire for decades. People began moving to more fire-prone regions, and settlements on the edge of forests and other undeveloped swaths of land, known as wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas, became increasingly popular. Today, more than 46 million residences are located in what’s considered WUI land.
Layered on top of forest management practices and more residents living in the path of wildfires is climate change, which acts as a multiplier on the likelihood of intense wildfires.
Higher global temperatures affect wildfires in multiple ways, increasing both the length of time vegetation grows and the period of high temperatures where wildfires are most likely to ignite. In the West especially, this pattern dries out vegetation quicker, evaporating moisture so that the ecosystem reaches its driest point earlier in the year. Warmer global temperatures also increase the intensity of certain weather patterns: droughts get longer and deeper, and extreme wind events become more common.
Climate change doesn’t start the fire, but it creates the conditions where fires are more likely and more intense. Left-over fuels from a century of forest management created a “debt” of fire but climate change is raising the interest rate, setting the stage for explosive, hot and fast moving fires.
The basics of burning
A prescribed or controlled burn is a planned application of fire onto the land. This fire can improve the health of ecosystems, adding nutrients back into the soil and encouraging new plant growth, among other benefits. It can also create recently-burned buffers around structures, communities, and natural spaces, slowing or potentially even curbing the spread of incoming flames.
“You could do very targeted fuel breaks around communities in a way that actually is effective in reducing and breaking up field continuity,” explains Kimiko Barrett, Ph.D., who researches and advises communities on wildfire planning for Headwaters Economics.
Barrett notes, however, that this needs to be accompanied with “a lot more resources and support” to help communities “plan, mitigate, and anticipate a wildfire.” Just as there isn’t a single root issue you can address to solve our current wildfire crisis, prescribed burns aren’t a singular solution. But, when used as part of a larger toolkit and performed as a regular practice, they can make an impact on the scale and spread of wildfires.
That said, how specifically these burns will prevent or slow wildfires is tricky to predict.
“There’s no way of knowing that a particular prescribed fire led to the absence of a wildfire,” says US Forest Service Research Meteorologist Warren Heilman, adding that studies relying on fire behavior models have shown mixed results. Some suggested reduction of forest fuels would lead to less severe fire behaviors while others suggested stronger winds as a result of a more open environment would do the opposite.
Other experts have pointed to paths of recent fires to demonstrate the power of prescribed burns. Last year’s dramatic Caldor fire provided some real-world evidence that prescribed burns can help dampen the intensity or slow the spread of wildfire, the San Francisco Chronicle and UC Berkeley researchers found.
And federal and state agencies across the country are confident enough in the practice’s efficacy to employ it as a mitigation strategy. While California and the West tend to be top of mind when thinking about wildfires, the Southern US has traditionally led the way in conducting prescribed burns, and they’re regularly conducted on public and private lands from Oklahoma to New Jersey to Florida.
Many of these burns are performed in forests and on other uninhabited land, including in national parks, but prescribed burning has long been used as a tool by ranchers and farmers. It’s also become increasingly common in WUI areas and on private property. Not all land is ideal for prescribed burning, though, and there can be a lot of work involved to get an area primed for it, such as landscaping efforts like cutting down trees, pruning weeds and plants, and raking up excess leaves and other debris.
Robbins and the Cultural Fire Management Council put fire to Yurok land several times a year as part of training exchange burns (TREX). The idea is to develop hands-on experience based on Yurok and other nearby tribes’ understanding of what the land needs. While government agencies typically focus on reducing hazardous fuels, cultural burns are focused on the health of the land and restoring the ability of specific vegetation to thrive.
TREX burns are attended by firefighters, private landowners and other native groups. Robbins says sharing knowledge about Indigeous fire practices with other IPBN members, which include tribes from around the US, is crucial.
“Our knowledge is not handed down intact,” she says. “So different people have different pieces of that knowledge. And when we get together, we share it, and we can start putting those pieces together.”
Robbins recently came back from Robinson Rancheria, where tribe members did their first burn in 80 years after attending TREX on Yurok land. The differences in geographies and vegetation mean “things will be a little different” in each place, Robbins says.
But there are some general considerations that go into performing a burn that can give you an idea of what the process is like.
First, it requires paying close attention to the weather. According to the Forest Service, those hoping to burn must consider “temperature, humidity, wind, moisture of the vegetation, and conditions for the dispersal of smoke.” This should be taken into consideration not only for the day of the burn, but also the day after, in case any embers remain.
Robbins says they’ve had to adjust both the timing and flexibility of their plans because of climate change’s impact on weather patterns. The Yurok tribe used to do their spring burns in March or April; they are moving them as early as February now. They can rarely give a specific date, rather choosing a potential window for participants.
“It is definitely affecting not only the weather patterns, but the reproductive patterns of the animals as well,” Robbins says, adding fire organizers have to be especially aware of specific ’ cues. “Are the birds building their nests? Are mama doves still pregnant or have they dropped their young? Because we do not want to interfere with those birthing processes.”
While it often comes down to the wire to know if a burn can go ahead, a lot of planning still needs to be done in advance. Depending on the location, there are various permits required – for example, you need air quality approval – and experienced practitioners are brought in to develop burn plans or maps.
Training burns include walking the land ahead of time to talk about why fire is beneficial and identifying culturally-important vegetation to target, Robbins says. They’ll look for potential fire paths and specific hazards those setting the fire will need to avoid. It’s a whole-day event, from setting up fire trucks to then starting the burn from the highest point, moving downwards – a process that takes several hours.
Safety is another key element. There are layers of procedures and protocols worked into a burn plan, like conducting pre-burn briefings, performing a burn test before proceeding with the plan, and “mopping up” after by dosing any lingering flames with readily-available water sources.
How do the effects of prescribed burns compare to wildfires?
The same conditions that make wildfires more deadly also make setting fire to the land riskier. However, most impacts that might come from burning intentionally aren’t particularly comparable to major wildfires.
Inhaling wildfire smoke is unhealthy, especially through chronic exposure – and can lead to long-term respiratory and cardiac effects.
A 2019 study tried to compare the effect of prescribed fire smoke versus wildfire smoke on children in California. On average, the children exposed only to wildfires were exposed to higher air pollution concentrations, had higher immune responses and more health issues compared to the prescribed fire group – but the study was relatively small.
About 20% of total acres burned by prescribed fires in 2019 were on lands managed by the Forest Service, according to National Interagency Fire Center records. Researcher Michelle Kondo and others at the Forest Service studied which populations were affected by the agency’s burns over the last decade. While there were differences in who was more exposed to prescribed burn smoke – rural areas and counties with high Black and white populations among them – the study did not find the disproportionate health impacts usually associated with wildfire smoke.
Still, the USFS is only part of the total fires being burnt across the US – and the number of acres managed by prescribed fires is certainly on the rise. Tools to assess who is being exposed to this smoke and how often could help to reduce disproportionate exposures, Kondo says.
And because climate change is driven by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations, do wildfires and prescribed burns make climate change worse? In 2020, carbon dioxide emissions from a truly horrific wildfire year in California were estimated to be the second largest source of emissions for the state that year. But trees operate on a different timeline: in a “normal” carbon cycle, CO2 levels rise and fall with the seasons and over the lifecycle of plants. The release from fires is balanced when trees and other flora eventually regrow, capturing carbon in plants and the soil. There’s also some indication that prescribed burns can help trap more carbon in the soil and out of the atmosphere.
“The forests are alive. They’re growing and dying and regrowing,” Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2020. “That’s really different than carbon that was buried 50 million years ago under the earth that we are unearthing and burning. I think it’s not helpful to compare the two. It’s a misdirection.”
The state of prescribed burns in 2022
The shift towards embracing prescribed fire has involved something of a long, slow campaign from experts and researchers, who have faced an uphill battle convincing politicians and the public alike that “good fire” has real benefits. Many continue to cite public opinion as one of the biggest hurdles to burning more land — and some politicians are still pushing for suppression-first policies. Regulatory requirements and concerns over responsibility if a burn does go wrong can also limit the interest and ability of groups to conduct burns.
When it comes to cultural burns, Robbins says her tribe has a good relationship with CalFire and air quality agencies. But it wasn’t always like that.
“It took a few years for CalFire to realize we do have experience and expertise in this field and that we are also willing to follow the rules,” Robbins says. “Instead of flying airplanes over to see what we're doing, they found a way to join in and help us burn.”
There is a limit for tribes like the Yurok to “go out and burn in the right place at the right time,” though.
“Our ancestors burned from the high mountain tops down to the ocean side,” Robbins says — not burning every place at once, but finding a cycle for each place. “They took care of our entire ancestral territory with fire.”
Now, since the Yurok do not actually own the majority of their reservation, they require permission to do many of their cultural burns. A full restoration of fire practices would probably involve a court battle between tribes and the US government, Robbins says.
The Biden administration has made a significant investment in hopes of burning tens of millions more acres than the current amount federal agencies are addressing, and there are some signs of those dollars making their way into specific projects.
Even so, Wara cautions that the price tag to reach this proposed rate of burning will be high. Prescribed burns can be expensive, particularly at a large scale, as they require training, tools, and staff. (This article does a great job of digging more into some of the associated costs).
Plus, treating the land is not a one-and-done process — over the years, the land will need to be continually managed to maintain the benefits.
Just this week, the Forest Service requested an increase in wildland fire funding for 2023, including a 47% bump in funding for “fire preparedness and salaries,” which Wildfire Today explains covers the majority of wildland fire costs, save for fire suppression. The Department of the Interior is also requesting more dollars to support additional prescribed burning and further research into the practice.
Of course, it’s too early to say whether those top-down asks will be met (next step: Congress). But on a local level, you can see signs of change, even if they are on a small scale. In 2020, Colleen wrote an article about the uptick of community-led initiatives, known as prescribed burn associations, in a number of wildfire-impacted California communities. The California Prescribed Burn Association website is a great resource even for those in different states, offering the basic steps a burn entails and a helpful fire-jargon glossary.
Another sign that opinions are changing, slowly but surely? In 2001, Smokey the Bear’s official slogan was changed from “only you can prevent forest fires” to “only you can prevent wildfires” in part to clarify that he was not advising against prescribed burns.