We Need More Controlled Burns to Prevent Wildfires
Residents in California have been waking up to apocalyptic orange skies caused by wildfires across the state. For a Thought Leader Series, we share a ProPublica article that dives deeper into solutions for reducing the severity of what many are now calling “megafires.”
Tim Ingalsbee is a previous wildland firefighter who is frustrated with the disconnect between what he learned about the west’s natural fire season patterns and California’s wildland management policies. Academics estimate that in prehistoric California, up to 11.8 million acres burned each year, yet between 1982 and 1998, California land management experts conducted only 30,000 acres of controlled burns. Between 1999 and 2017, it dropped to just 13,000 acres. We are now seeing a buildup of dense flammable material in our wildlands combined with intensifying heat and drought due to climate change. The result is nearly uncontrollable fast-moving blazes that are getting worse year after year.
Mike Beasley, deputy fire chief of Yosemite National Park from 2001 to 2009, said he thought the state needed to turn to ecology to find a solution to preventing wildfires. More controlled burns would help clear out high risk areas near populated regions and create burn lines to stop wildfires when they do break out.
Funding controlled burns is more complicated than funding active firefighting. When a fire is raging, it’s easy to get agencies to spend money, but when it comes to organizing a controlled burn, sourcing equipment, complying with the Clean Air Act, and contending with the political danger of a controlled burn getting out of control often deter plans.
In the southeast, controlled burns play a much bigger role in wildfire prevention. Lenya Quinn-Davidson, an area fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension and director of the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, is optimistic that California could adopt similar policies. This past August, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a memorandum of understanding on the need for more controlled burns, indicating the state might finally be getting on board with more sustainable fire practices.
As climate change increases the risk of wildfires, we urgently need to rethink our fire prevention strategies. Taking some of the millions of dollars we spend fighting active blazes and using it for strategic controlled burns to mitigate fire risk will be incredibly beneficial in the long run. Looking at the earth’s natural fire patterns and centuries of wildfire mitigation practices employed by indigenous communities shows us that manipulating the west’s natural burn cycle to work around human-populated areas will be more effective in the long run than suppressing all fire until one rages out of control.