Fight Fire With Fire

What Florida gets right about using controlled burns to prevent damaging wildfires, and what California could learn from it.

© USFWS

The largest wildfire in New Mexico history was set by the federal government. In April, a prescribed burn carried out by the U.S. Forest Service escaped about four hours after being set. The fire was intended to reduce hazardous fuels and the risk of wildfire, but it became a conflagration that burned more than 340,000 acres.

The Forest Service made many mistakes during the out-of-control burn, including following outdated plans, lacking sufficient manpower and other resources, and failing to monitor weather adequately or anticipate rapidly changing wind and humidity. There is no excuse for such negligence. Fire ecologists and forestry experts agree, however, that the pace and scale of prescribed fire use are nowhere near sufficient to combat growing wildfire risk. The federal government must search for ways to get more “good” fire on the ground when and where it can be done safely, and traditions in Southeastern states, as well as recent Western examples, offer lessons in that respect.

Fire has been used to help manage land across North America for thousands of years. Native American tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific set fires to cultivate new growth of vegetation, clear travel corridors, and manage wild game. Today, the federal government is one of many entities that use prescribed fires — low-intensity burns planned in advance and set deliberately. The goal of many burns, particularly in the arid West, is to methodically eliminate fuels from grasslands and forests before a wildfire does so with much greater speed, intensity, and destruction.

“In some ways, the tribes handed a drip torch to the early settlers and landowners in the South,” says Morgan Varner, director of fire research at Tall Timbers Research Station in Tallahassee, Florida. Varner, who lived in California for eight years while a forestry professor, notes that southerners who took their lead from Native Americans generally were not concerned with wildfire risk. They instead used fire to aid the growth of timber and manage habitat for wildlife. Still, Varner jokes that after decades of prescribed fire use in the region “even Smokey would have said that prescribed fire is good.”

Read the full article in Reason.

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