How to Convince Fire Departments to Let Small Wildfires Burn

Science shows that controlled, prescribed fires can help prevent larger, more destructive fires.
Author:
Publish date:
In 2009, Alberta burned off over 5,000 hectares of forest in the northern end of Banff National Park. (Photo: Cameron Strandberg/Flickr)

In 2009, Alberta burned off over 5,000 hectares of forest in the northern end of Banff National Park. (Photo: Cameron Strandberg/Flickr)

In the right forests, one important way to prevent large fires is to let small ones burn. That's the conclusion of recent research into wildfires, which has found that small, controlled fires remove dry brush that would serve as fuel to mega-fires if allowed to build up. In addition, moderate fires can nourish the soil and germinate the seeds of plants evolved to work with wildfire. (Lodgepole pinecones = real-life dragon eggs.)If you're from California, or live in another region that's prone to wildfires, you may already know this. Researchers and forest managers know it too. A quick search finds a number of official documents that talk about the importance of removing brush, setting off controlled "prescribed fires," and letting small wildfires burn far away from buildings. This is a major departure from the common practice of the recent past, when nobody cleared brush and firefighters put out all forest fires. researchers now acknowledge such habits set the stage for the large, out-of-control fires of today.

"The benefits of greater fire use have been a difficult sell because of public objections to smoke and a negative perception of forest fires."

But has knowing translated to doing? Apparently not, according to an essay a team of forest scientists published today in the journal Science. The team cites data from 2008, the latest available, that shows fire departments put out 99.6 percent of all forest fires in the United States. That continued the destructive cycle of brush build-up and mega-fires, the essay argues.

So why haven't we done what we know can help forests and protect our communities? The essay blames money and public support. "There is little economic incentive to change because fire suppression is steadfastly financed through dedicated congressional appropriations, which are augmented with emergency funding, whereas fuels reduction and prescribed burning costs come out of a limited budget," write the researchers, a team including scientists from the U.S. Forest Service and universities in several western states. Plus, they say, "The benefits of greater fire use have been a difficult sell because of public objections to smoke and a negative perception of forest fires."

Other research has found, however, that many members of the public are ready to accept prescribed fires. Many are even willing to accept some smoke as a result. Focus groups tend to say they're worried about prescribed fires getting out of control, but fire agencies can build trust by being transparent and keeping in good touch with community members, Forest Service researcher Sarah McCaffrey wrote in a paper published in 2006.

The Science essay suggests a few solutions. The National Interagency Fire Center could set aside people—and money—whose only job is setting prescribed fires. Such crews already exist within some local departments, but they often end up getting pulled into fire-suppression duty instead, and have little time for their primary work, the Science authors write. The essay also notes "Australian foresters"—who aim to burn six to eight percent of their government-managed forests every year—"make substantial efforts to educate the public about the inevitability of fire and its ecological benefits." Sounds like American foresters need to do the same.

Related