A Call for Prescribed Burns in Forests

Prescribed burn in Yosemite National Park / PBS

Across the United States, there has been a five-fold increase in wildfires over the past few decades. In 2017 alone, there were some 100,000 wildfires that burned some 10 million acres. With climate change, the zone in which trees burn has increased by two-thirds.

Unwise management of forests has only exacerbated the impacts of our changing climate. Instead of setting prescribed burns to manage fires, like Native Americans have done for centuries, natural resource policymakers suppressed all wildfires in an effort to protect communities. The result has been an explosion in difficult-to-control wildfires.

At Science to Action Day, an event associated with the Global Climate Action Summit, in San Francisco, Patrick Gonzalez, principal climate change scientist with the U.S. National Park Service, said “a century of suppressing wildfires has built up fuel in forests.”

When all fires are suppressed, smaller, more frequent fires can’t clear out dead trees and underbrush. The result is accumulated flammable biomass that eventually explodes into unmanageable conflagrations.

Many state-level forestry departments have suppressed fires because more and more communities are now living in — or close to — areas that once frequently burned.

It’s an inherently risky and short-sighted approach to development. And communities in these wildfire zones aren’t just risking their property but also their long-term health.

Kari Nadeau, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, argued that “there is no safe distance from a wildfire.” Inhaling smoke itself is hazardous. But blazes that consume homes and garages filled with household cleaners like Drano release other dangerous particles into the atmosphere.

“Even one part per million” of toxic wildfire smoke negatively impacts those highest at risk — children, the elderly, and those with asthma.

After five days of wildfires in California, the number of hospital visits for asthma attacks went up a whopping 400 percent. And the number of strokes increased by 42 percent. Being exposed to just one wildfire’s worth of smoke is equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for a year. “That’s the real data.”

Nadeau said there is important research being conducted on prescribed burns, which are smaller, more contained fires that revitalize forest ecosystem function.

“We need to support the increased use of this practice. It can be done safely.” When small, fires give off smaller amounts of nasty pollutants. Burns can also be scheduled when air pollution levels are low and the wind is blowing away from neighboring communities.

Jonathan Jarvis, former director of the National Park Service and now head of the Institute for Parks, People, and Biodiversity at University of California at Berkeley, argued that national parks may be the best place to try out climate adaptation approaches like controlled burns. “We need to experiment at the landscape scale — at the scale of very large ecosystems.” Indeed, the National Park Service is now prescribing burns in Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, as is the U.S. Forest Service in some of its forests, but the approach needs to become more widespread.

In the interim, there is a need for better early warning systems for communities at risk from fast-moving wildfires. Ben Lee Preston, director of infrastructure resilience at RAND, said remote sensing technologies can be installed in the landscape to give communities and firefighters more advance notice. We would add there is a need to use landscape design to fireproof homes and relocate homeowners in very high-risk areas to other locations.

Wildfires are responsible for the majority of the carbon natural systems released into the atmosphere. But forests that have undergone a prescribed burn are estimated to release less carbon over time, given the controlled burn improves their overall ecological health.

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