Science and Tech


Experts Say Prescribed Fires Would Reduce Risk Of Serious Wildfires

Prescribed fire, and other fuel treatments, would help reduce serious wildfires, but the technique comes with its own set of challenges.
Posted at 8:19 PM, Sep 23, 2020

Record-breaking wildfires on the West Coast have burned millions of acres and focused tens of thousands of people out of their homes. Experts say warmer temperatures have only made wildfires worse.  

"Climate change has made conditions drier and warmer, but on top of that we also have this extraordinary overgrowth of fuels across our landscape," Miller said. 

Rebecca Miller, a PHD candidate at Stanford University, conducted a study, published earlier this year, on prescribed fire. 

A prescribed fire is a fire set on purpose to clear out ground fuels like dead leaves and fallen tree limbs. Other fuel treatments include mechanical thinning and managed wildfire. 

Miller's study looked into the reasons why prescribed burns weren't being used as much in California. She says about 20 million acres or about 20 percent of California’s forests could use fuel treatments.

"The challenge in all of this is that there are a lot of different landowners and a lot of different stakeholders, each with their own priorities and each with their own abilities that are going to be tempered by funding and regulations," Miller said. 

She said things like concerns of liability, delays and not enough trained prescribed burners have limited the number of prescribed fires in the state. 

President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed California and poor forest management for the wildfires. 

Last month California and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to each increase their fuel treatments annually to 500,000 acres a year within a couple of years. That's a total of one million acres each year. 

Len Nielson with Cal Fire says a workforce will need to be developed to reach this goal. A number of other agencies are also helping. 

"To accomplish 500,000 acres a year is quite a bit and it's quite a bit more than what the state's accomplishing now," said Nielson.

According to a 2018 report by the California Little Hoover Commission, private landowners own about 39 percent of the state's forests, the federal government owns 57 percent, and the state of California owns about 2 percent. Local governments own the rest. Nielson says they encourage private landowners to do prescribed fire. 

"You look at 3.6 million acres of fires that have burned since the beginning of August and it's readily apparent that having a very robust prescribed fire program would definitely prevent and reduce that kind of number," Nielson said.