MEGA FIRES PART II: CONTROLLED BURNING, The Down and Dirty.
By Del Albright
(NOTE: This is long but sharable, with Peer Review Team listed at the end. Part 1 of Mega Fires is here: https://delalbright.blogspot.com/2020/09/welcome-to-unnecessary-mega-fire.html).
Controlled Burning, or also called Prescribed Fire, is a controversial tool for firefighters these days. Controversial politically, but not technically to any wildland firefighter – it is a necessary fuel management technique. It is a controlled prescription that results in a targeted application that reduces wildfire danger and smoke and a cooler fire that promotes vegetation rejuvenation by not destroying the soil. Here is the “down and dirty.”
The takeaways from this article are:
1. Prescribed fire produces less air pollution than wildfires with significantly less particulate matter (pm) – depending on which study you believe.
2. Controlled Burning helps reduce the risk of wildfire and predates modern civilization; it dates back to the Native Americans of North America.
3. Wildfires destroy the soil and consume more biomass than necessary and expose more people to smoke than controlled burns.
4. The smoke of any type affects those impacted by COVID-19.
5. When combined with the loss of other land management tools like pesticides, forest thinning, and logging, the loss of controlled burning programs has made our forests, rangelands, and deserts hot-bed tinderboxes for mega fires.
I am but one voice. There are “gazillions” of experts in this arena. This social network post/blog could be an entire Master’s Thesis, but it is not. It is not meant to be comprehensive. Instead, it is an introduction to give you a foundation from which you can learn more – and perhaps help institute change to how we manage our lands in the future.
This article was vetted by a Peer Review Team and anchored in some solid research.
Going back to 1981, when I completed my Master’s Thesis about managing brushlands using Prescribed Fire, my professor at the time gave me the greatest quote ever that still applies today: “Possibly the greatest challenge facing resource managers today is satisfying diverse public demands for natural resources while ensuring environmental quality and the long term productivity of wildland ecosystems.” (Hal Salwassar, 1981).
Most public land managers would tell you the same thing – it is a balancing act, and they are the “teeter-totter.”
Seven decades ago, Aldo Leopold established the philosophical basis for “conservation” and having a “land ethic” where there is a state of harmony between “men and land.” (Sand County Almanac, 1949).
Today, our “instruments” are out of tune, and in my opinion, there is no harmony. We are indeed out of tune! We have lost too many management tools and options due to increased political pressure from extremist environmental groups (resulting in politicians enacting more restrictions and regulations). The sad thing is, in today’s world, the layperson is given as much credence and recognition as a professional expert.
CONTROLLED VS WILDFIRE:
Prescribed or controlled fire is the intentional application of fire carefully planned as to time, size, type, and intensity of a fire. Fire agencies wait for the right weather, suitable fuel conditions, and the predicted desired fire behavior.
Some of the benefits of prescribed fire include reduced fire hazards, improved flood protection, improved range forage, better air quality, improved water yields, and enhanced wildlife and fisheries. (Albright, 1982, Implementation of Coordinated Resource Management and Planning on the Englebright Wildfire Project).
A big key here is that controlled fire can improve ecosystem health and lessen the impact of destructive wildfires. Burning in many vegetation types is critical to its life history. In California, for example, brush species like chamise require fire to reproduce effectively. Hence, whether we like it or not, it will burn at some point. The question is how—either in a controlled way to meet our management prescription or naturally after the fuel load is so great it burns everything, including homes!
Controlled burning smoke can be less destructive than wildfire smoke. It is more confined, often disbursed in overstory timber before polluting the atmosphere, and is applied when less likely to affect surrounding communities. Smoke from controlled burns disburses faster than a raging inferno wildfire (less time breathing it).
Giant wildfires produce “super-fog” that totally reduces visibility on public highways resulting in traffic accidents and fatalities. Prescribed fire can be planned to avoid or minimize this impact.
The smoke of any kind can produce health risks to sensitive individuals with issues like COPD or asthma. When it comes to “selling” prescribed fire to the public, the “asthma lobby,” as some have come to call it are very vocal in opposition – not realizing or accepting the fact that controlled smoke is better than wildfire smoke. What they do not understand is that we are in a “pay me now or pay me later” scenario.
I borrowed this graphic below from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), showing a single day comparison of fine particulate matter air pollution, prescribed vs. wildfire.
You can see that in this recent study, the prescribed fire stayed under the pollution standard while the wildfire went over the charts!
Of course, the best science and methods are needed in applying fire for protecting air quality. More on that here:
BIOMASS AND WASTED ENERGY:
Biomass is renewable energy from plants (and animals). Using biomass energy can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Wildfire destroys untold amounts of biomass.
All land management agencies face the need to be supportive of worldwide emission reductions to combat climate change. Yet our forest/desert/brushlands hold immeasurable amounts of stored energy that can serve humankind and wildlife alike.
Using prescribed fire helps better manage and take advantage of the biomass energy we hold.
More on that here from the U.S. Energy Administration: https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/
FUELS REDUCTION WITH FIRE:
Whether using “broadcast” burning of vast acreages of accumulated fuels, or burning slash piles in forested areas, prescribed fire safely reduces fuel loading. It helps prevent massive conflagrations that destroy everything.
Some crucial facts about fuels (Brown & Davis, 1973):
The behavior of fires depends on fuels more than any other factor.
By not conducting salvage operations of fire-killed timber, a dreaded firefighting condition ensues where blown-down dead trees form a jackstrawlike piles mixed in with dead standing snags.
Prescribed fire can contain and manage this horrendous condition to help prevent future mega fires.
It is also important to note that prescribed fire is one tool in reducing fuel loading, along with mechanical thinning, appropriate pesticide use, and grazing.
BALANCED ECOSYSTEM MANAGEMENT:
Land management agencies must continuously find a balance between economic, social, environmental, recreational, cultural (historical), scientific, and political needs. And in today’s world of litigation, it is sometimes just easier to rollover to lawsuits and political pressure than fight the battle for science to prevail.
What can we do? As I mentioned in Part I of the Mega Fire Generation, we must help land managers gain back the ability to manage our public lands properly. Ranchers and farmers need that same ability.
We need to curtail the myth that all of these mega fires are caused merely by global warming or climate change. We need to give back to our fire managers and land management agencies the ability to manage lands based on today’s conditions properly.
Help elect politicians with common sense in these subjects and keep them in office. We need to recall/remove bad politicians. I harp on this political stuff because it all boils down to politics. Join those groups/pages/efforts that are working towards common sense in the use of our lands and resources.
We must work to challenge and change land management laws and regulations that impede important forest health and fuel reduction projects so that future generations are not exposed to mega firestorms that needlessly destroy life, property, and natural resources.
PEER REVIEW TEAM/CONSULTED EXPERTS and REFERENCES
Albright, Delmer L. “Implementation of Coordinated Resource Management and Planning on the Englebright Wildlife Project” (CSUS, 1982).
Amador, Don. Professional Recreation/Landuse Consultant, Quiet Warrior Racing.
Brown, Arthur A, and Davis, Kenneth P. “Forest Fire Control and Use” (2nd Edition). McGraw Hill, 1973.
Lockwood, Cam. Chief Operation Officer (43 Year Veteran of federal service BLM & USFS).
Lueder, Eric. Board of Directors-PWORA, Government Relations Officer-Marin County Motorcycle Association.
Mayer, Kenneth E. Professional Wildlife Biologist; Former Director, Nevada
Dept. of Wildlife (NDOW).
Shimer, John. Battalion Chief, CalFire (Retired).
Zagaris, Kim. Chief (Ret), Wildfire Policy & Technology Advisor, Western Fire Chief’s Association.