Is prescribed fire science still developing?

Last week the Secretary of the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) in Victoria, Australia told the Royal Commission that is looking into last year’s Black Saturday fires that he would not support a 4 to 6 percent increase in prescribed burning, partly because the science was still developing.

But a seven-member panel made up of fire ecologists, CSIRO fire researcher Phil Cheney, and Jerry Williams, former Chief of the U. S. Forest Service, said there is plenty of science available to support burning 5 to 10 percent of Victoria’s forests each year.

Cheney said a good prescribed fire will stop a bushfire for one to two years, and after three years will have a “profound effect” in reducing the rate of spread. For as long as 20 years embers and flame height will be reduced.

Jerry Williams said prescribed fire had an effect even in extreme conditions.

A person might say the science of prescribed burning has been developing for many centuries since indigenous people began routinely setting prescribed fires to enhance the habitat for the plants and animals they needed for survival. In 1804 and 1805 Lewis and Clark documented the use of prescribed fire by native Americans (but at least one of them had an unfortunate result). At some point we have to admit that the science has reached a level of maturity.

Abraham Lincoln said:

Things may come to those who wait…but only the things left by those who hustle.

From the DSE’s Fire Ecology web page:

Fire is a natural part of the Australian environment and has been so for millions of years. Natural ignition (lightning) and indigenous burning practices have shaped our ecosystems over tens of thousands of years.

From Bill Gabbert, February 22, 2010:

Prescribed fire, when applied wisely by experienced fire management personnel, is an essential land management tool.

via @FireInfoGirl

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Is prescribed fire science still developing?”

  1. I would add that a great deal of prescribed burning is not science but art! You can take all the couse work that you want and get the checklist of want weather and fuel moisture conditions you need to burn an area. The trouble is fire doesn’t like to be confined to the box we would like to prescribe for it. That is where the art comes in. By lighting the test burn and observing fire behavior through out the burn you are bound to see something that the science can’t account for. There may be times when the science is telling you to go ahead but your gut is telling you to put it out. This is where many new burners get into trouble because they haven’t witnessed enough fire behavior to know that something isn’t right!

  2. I would say that, as a practicioner, there are areas of the science that are developing, such as ignition potentials for organic soils, amount of fuel consumption expected under various wx and climate scenarios, and the transport of smoke from RxBs; however, enough is known about the benefits of burning that it is a viable tactic for reducing fuel loads. To suggest that it shouldn’t be a part of a strategy for reducing destructive wildfires is insane. It has its place in the toolbox- a low cost way to affect lots of acres very efficiently in a hurry.


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