The threat of devastating wildfires has become a fixture for many Americans, especially in the West. So experts are turning to an old tool in an attempt to limit the destruction: controlled burns.
The intensity of recent wildfires have called attention to find a better way to deal with these annual infernos. The decades long focus on fire suppression has left many of the nation’s forests overgrown, which is one reason scientists say today’s fires are so destructive.
“I don’t think people realize that we’re actually at a point where, some of these fires, we cannot put them out,” Lenya N. Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, told the NY Times. “We really need to be thinking in different ways about how we do things.”
In 2021, the U.S. Forest Service used prescribed burns on a record 1.8 million acres of federal land, more than twice the size of Yosemite National Park. In addition, the agency wants to treat 50 million acres with fire and mechanical brush thinning over the coming decade, according to reports.
However, changes to the climate with shifting rain patterns and prolonged dry periods are adding complications for safely performing controlled burns.
Heavy rains in March thwarted land managers’ plans to conduct burns in Florida, J. Morgan Varner, the director of fire research at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, told the New York Times.
“We’re dealing with a really dynamic climate that makes planning difficult,” Dr. Varner said.
And there are bureaucratic hurdles from air quality rules to liability if a burn spirals out of control.
California, Oregon, and other states are looking to make legal changes to encourage more burning.
Last year, California passed a law that lets land managers off the hook for firefighting costs if a burn event goes wrong. Oregon legislators passed a law that directs state agencies and forest industry officials to study liability options for prescribed fires.
Also, the California legislature is considering creating a $20 million fund to compensate homeowners for losses caused by prescribed burns.
The Golden State wants to use prescribed fire on 300,000 acres of land, roughly the size of the city of Los Angeles, annually by 2025.