89.9 FM Live From The University Of New Mexico
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why There Are Challenges To Doing More Prescribed Burns As Part Of Forest Management


California's devastating fires are prompting calls for more aggressive forest management. One way to do that is through prescribed burns, meaning fires set on purpose. But there are challenges to doing more of them, as Capital Public Radio's Ezra David Romero reports.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: David Murray's colleagues call him the burn boss. He and his crew are using hoses to put out the perimeter of a fire at Sugar Pine Point State Park on Lake Tahoe's northwest side.

DAVID MURRAY: You can see that smoke up there. That's a nice large cedar that's probably burning about 70 feet up.

ROMERO: Crews ignited this fire on purpose. This tactic is used to prevent wildfires to improve biodiversity and to restore the forest. Many of California's forests are dense with young trees and thick shrubs that act as fuel for a fire. This is because of logging and a century of not letting fires burn when they ignite. Murray wants to open the forest up so it resembles a mosaic of open patches of trees.

MURRAY: So once you change that stand structure, you're able to change the fire behavior once fire gets into that stand.

ROMERO: To get to this point where a prescribed burn is even an option, forest managers must remove the buildup of brush and trees. That's called thinning. California State Parks environmental scientist Daniel Shaw says before lighting a prescribed burn, they also need to consider the risks to nearby communities.

DANIEL SHAW: So we're producing smoke, but we're trying to produce it at a time when it has the least potential impact and hopefully reduce the amount of smoke that might come with a wildfire.

ROMERO: Shaw says prescribed burns are protecting this area, but can the use of them be expanded? Roger Bales with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced said says yes.

ROGER BALES: They can be scaled up as long as we can provide the financing to do them and do them in a way that doesn't degrade the air quality.

ROMERO: He says the cost of a prescribed burn is a lot less than fighting a wildfire. But to do more of it, he says there needs to be more buy-in from the public and government. So far this year, the U.S. Forest Service has lit about 60,000 acres in California. Hugh Safford says that's more than in recent years. Yet it's only a sliver of the millions of acres needing treatment. He's the Forest Service Pacific Southwest Regional ecologist.

HUGH SAFFORD: The scale of the problem is absolutely massive. Even if we were to double or triple the amount of prescribed fire we're doing, it wouldn't come close to solving the problem.

ROMERO: UC Berkeley fire scientist Robert York supports burning year-round.

ROBERT YORK: If the conditions are good, let's have lots of burns going on in the Sierra Nevada.

ROMERO: York admits there are challenges, like how dry fuels are from years of drought. He says the warmer and drier it is, the more expensive a burn is because of how many people and resources are needed to keep it from getting out of control.

YORK: We can reduce that risk quite a bit by burning under conditions that are appropriate. The other constraint we have is just the lack of expertise around the state for conducting prescribed fires.

ROMERO: York says there needs to be more training in how to carry out a prescribed burn, especially with the mega fires California is experiencing due to a subtler impact - warming temperatures, drying trees and brush and melting snow sooner and sooner.

YORK: The emergency starts happening early on in the summer as soon as the snow melts. If we kind of recognize that as a huge problem and a huge emergency, then we can maybe put more resources toward prescribed burning.

ROMERO: York says that if California takes this seriously and chooses to burn more of its forests on purpose, the wildfires that it can't control could become less catastrophic. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Lake Tahoe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra Romero