Bill introduced to promote prescribed fire intends to reduce fire risk

It would appropriate $300M annually for the federal land management agencies’ prescribed fire programs. But are there other ways to reduce fire risk?

September 24, 2020 | 8:10 a.m. MDT

Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area
Prescribed fire at Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Oklahoma by M. Fidler, February, 2013.

A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would make large sums of money available to increase the number of acres treated with prescribed fire (also known as controlled burns).

It has been fashionable during the last two years to blame “forest management” for the large, devastating wildfires that have burned thousands of homes in California. According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service the federal government manages 46 percent of the land in California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection manages or has fire protection responsibility for about 30 percent.

Research conducted in 2019 to identify barriers to conducting prescribed fires found that in the 11 western states the primary reasons cited were lack of adequate capacity and funding, along with a need for greater leadership direction and incentives. Barriers related to policy requirements tended to be significant only in specific locations or situations, such as smoke regulations in the Pacific Northwest or protecting specific threatened and endangered species.

The National Prescribed Fire Act of 2020, Senate Bill 4625, which was introduced last week by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and two cosponsors, would help address the capacity issue by appropriating $300 million for both the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to plan, prepare, and conduct controlled burns on federal, state, and private lands. It would also provide $10 million for controlled burns on county, state and private land that are at high risk of burning in a wildfire. Additionally, the bill establishes an incentive program that would provide $100,000 to a State, county, and Federal agency for any controlled burns larger than 50,000 acres. (Summary and text of the bill)

In order to carry out the projects, the legislation would establish a workforce development program at the Forest Service and Department of the Interior to develop, train, and hire prescribed fire practitioners, and creates employment programs for Tribes, veterans, women, and those formerly incarcerated.

In an effort to address air quality control barriers,  the bill “Requires state air quality agencies to use current laws and regulations to allow larger controlled burns, and give states more flexibility in winter months to conduct controlled burns that reduce catastrophic smoke events in the summer.” The legislation will allow some prescribed fire projects larger than 1,000 acres to be exempt from air quality regulations.

Our Take

Appropriating more funds and hiring additional personnel for conducting prescribed fires could definitely result in more acres treated. If the bill passes, it would be a large step in the right direction. It is notable that the bill specifically mentions hiring those who were formerly incarcerated. Those who served time for non-violent offenses often deserve another chance, especially if they learned the firefighting trade on a state or county inmate fire crew.

There are many benefits of prescribed fires, including more control over the adverse health effects of smoke, improving forest health, and returning fire to dependent ecosystems.

But it gets complicated when prescribed fire is expected to “…help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods”, as cited in a release issued last week by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

One provision of the bill is poorly worded and is confusing. In Section 102 it is either saying that no later than September 30, 2022 every unit of the USFS, FWS, NPS, and BIA must conduct a prescribed fire larger than 100 acres, possibly only applying to units west of the 100th meridian. Or, it might be interpreted as meaning each unit larger than 100 acres must conduct at least one prescribed fire. But either way it is ridiculous and arbitrary. Some 100-acre units might never be suitable for prescribed fire. Planning to use fire as a tool is based on science and the determination that treating an area with fire is PRESCRIBED in order to accomplish a number of specific objectives, not well-meaning but possibly detrimental legislation.

Scenario #1, Moderate fire conditions

There is no doubt that if a wildfire is spreading under moderate conditions of fuels and weather (especially wind), when the blaze moves into an area previously visited by any kind of fire the rate of spread, intensity, and resistance to control will decrease. Firefighters will have a better chance of stopping it at that location. The size of that earlier fire footprint will be a factor in the effectiveness of stopping the entire fire, since the wildfire may burn through, around, or over it by spotting. The availability of firefighting resources to quickly take advantage of what may be a temporary reduction in intensity is also critical. Unless the prescribed fire occurred within the last year or so there is usually adequate fuel to carry a fire (such as grass, leaves, or dead and down woody fuel) depending on the vegetation type and time of year. It is much like using fire retardant dropped by air tankers. Under ideal conditions, the viscous liquid will slow the spread long enough for firefighters on the ground to move in and put out the fire in that area. If those resources are not available, the blaze may eventually burn through or around the retardant.

Scenario #2, Extreme fire conditions

The wildfires that burn hundreds or thousands of homes usually occur during extreme conditions. What the most disastrous fires have in common is drought, low fuel moisture, low relative humidity, and most importantly, strong wind. In the last few weeks in California and Oregon we have seen blazes under those conditions spread for dozens of miles in 24 hours.

Rich McCrea, the Fire Behavior Analyst on the recent North Complex near Quincy, CA, said the wind on September 8 pushed the fire right through areas in forests that had been clear cut, running 30 miles in about 18 hours.

We can’t log our way out of the fire problem.

Sheltering from the Creek Fire at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir
Burning embers lofted by the Creek Fire are seen as people are sheltering at the Mammoth Pool Reservoir Boat Launch, Sept. 5, 2020 in Northern California. Photo by Cameron Colombero, via Mike Ikahihifo.

On September 8, 2020 the Almeda Drive Fire burned 3,200 acres in Southern Oregon — it was not a huge fire, but there were huge losses. The 40 to 45 mph wind aligned with the Interstate 5 corridor as it burned like a blowtorch for 8 miles, starting north of Ashland and tearing through the cities of Talent and Phoenix. Approximately 2,357 structures were destroyed — but not all by a massive flaming front. Burning embers carried up to thousands of feet by the fire landed in receptive fuels near or on some structures, setting them alight.

structures burned Almeda Drive Fire Phoenix Talent Oregon
A portion of the Almeda Drive Fire in the area of Phoenix and Talent in southern Oregon. Screenshot from video shot by Jackson County on September 8, 2020.

What can be done to reduce fire losses?

Jack Cohen is a retired U.S. Forest Service Research fire scientist who has spent years determining how structures ignite during extreme wildfires. In a September 21, 2020 article he wrote for Wildfire Today with Dave Strohmaier, they addressed how homes ignite during extreme wildfires.

“Surprisingly, research has shown that home ignitions during extreme wildfires result from conditions local to a home. A home’s ignition vulnerabilities in relation to nearby burning materials within 100 feet principally determine home ignitions. This area of a home and its immediate surroundings is called the home ignition zone (HIZ). Typically, lofted burning embers initiate ignitions within the HIZ – to homes directly and nearby flammables leading to homes. Although an intense wildfire can loft firebrands more than one-half mile to start fires, the minuscule local conditions where the burning embers land and accumulate determine ignitions. Importantly, most home destruction during extreme wildfires occurs hours after the wildfire has ceased intense burning near the community; the residential fuels – homes, other structures, and vegetation – continue fire spread within the community.

“Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable, however, by reducing home ignition potential within the HIZ we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem.”

"Community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem." Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier.

Again, prescribed fire has many benefits to forests and ecosystems, and Congress would be doing the right thing to substantially increase its funding.

But in order to “…help prevent the blistering and destructive infernos destroying homes, businesses and livelihoods”, we need to think outside the box — look at where the actual problem presents itself. The HIZ.

I asked Mr. Cohen for his reaction to the proposed legislation that he and I were not aware of when the September 21 article was published.

“Ignition resistant homes, and collectively communities, can be readily created by eliminating and reducing ignition vulnerabilities within the HIZ,” Mr. Cohen wrote in an email. “This enables the prevention of wildland-urban fire disasters without necessarily controlling extreme wildfires. Ironically, ignition resistant homes and communities can facilitate appropriate ecological fire management using prescribed burning. The potential destruction of homes from escaped prescribed burns is arguably a principal obstacle for restoring fire as an appropriate ecological factor. Therefore, it is unlikely that ecologically significant prescribed burning at landscape scales will occur without ignition resistant homes and communities.”

Here are some suggestions that could be considered for funding along with an enhanced prescribed fire program.

  • Provide grants to homeowners that are in areas with high risk from wildland fires. Pay a portion of the costs of improvements or retrofits to structures and the nearby vegetation to make the property more fire resistant. This could include the cost of removing some of the trees in order to have the crowns at least 18 feet apart if they are within 30 feet of the structures — many homeowners can’t afford the cost of complete tree removal.
  • Cities and counties could establish systems and procedures for property owners to easily dispose of the vegetation and debris they remove.
  • Hire crews that can physically help property owners reduce the fuels near their homes when it would be difficult for them to do it themselves.
  • Provide grants to cities and counties to improve evacuation capability and planning, to create community safety zones for sheltering as a fire approaches, and to build or improve emergency water supplies to be used by firefighters.

Our article “Six things that need to be done to protect fire-prone communities” has even more ideas.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.

7 thoughts on “Bill introduced to promote prescribed fire intends to reduce fire risk”

  1. This seems like déjà vu all over again.

    I remember many years ago (in the 90’s?), we were in a similar situation as we are now. The west was burning more intensely than normal, communities were being affected and the politicians were feeling the need to do something. So they did what they do best, they threw money at the land management agencies to solve the fuel buildup problem of the last 100+ years.

    Agencies advertised and filled many fuels management positions and started the process of burn plan development. Two years out from the political solution with more normal fire seasons occurring, the political pressure was no longer there and very quickly after that neither was the money to support it. All of those recently filled positions had to be quickly transferred to other funded positions.

    Prescribed burning is a good way to reduce fuel loading and reduce the threat to wildland urban interface (WUI) communities, but it is expensive, and risky. Politicians need to fund agencies on a continual and long term basis for this type of fuel treatment to work. Without that type of commitment, to treat large areas around WUI communities on a continual basis, (initial and then follow-up treatment), it really is a waste of time.

    Doing what you can to help lessen the risk. Funding the training for a large fuels management workforce and providing them the opportunity to gain the in the field experience so they can safely and effectively conduct these burns is needed as well.

    Prescribed burning alone will not solve the problem. Communities need to get serious on three things they can do to help protect themselves, which Mr. Cohen explains in the article;
    • Insist on building with burn resistant materials.
    • Taking to heart the defensible space philosophy and create that space not only around residences, but businesses as well.
    • And lastly planning and building strategically placed community/neighborhood safety zones (parks, football, soccer fields, and rodeo/fair grounds). Unless a whole new infrastructure is developed to allow a mass evacuation, these safety zones are a must.

    I hope the politicians stick with it this time, this is not a 5 or 10 year solution.

  2. Always seems to be some reason why we can’t do prescribed fire. Some of the larger ones as of late: pandemic, tactical pause nationwide due to a fatality or escape in another state/GACC; and federal furlough. Then there is the more mundane issues: not wanting to pay for OT, staff in training, fire hire, use or lose, air quality issues, etc. Then when we finally have all the elements arrive in our favor, there is the press to treat an easier unit that doesn’t really need the treatment rather than the difficult much much needed area. Plus an undue amount of risk is taken on by the burn boss who is a much lower paygrade than the agency administrator. Why take on this risk?

    I’ve often wondered if we should give bonuses to burn bosses when they successfully complete a project. Something worthwhile like a couple grand, not a $200 spot award. Why pause all operations when there is an issue in a totally different ecosystem with different weather? Also, there is no longer a “no smoke option”. Air regulators need to realize they are just putting off smoke from an RX burn to the wildfire day. Air quality readings have been off the charts. How is a little smoke with ozone an issue but we can have over a month of “hazardous” AQI in the summer over a majority of CA/OR?

    After all, is this a huge pressing issue for our national forests? Let’s start rethinking how we approach the issue so that we can make a difference in our ecosystems.

  3. Eliminate all protection rackets? The “economy” would fall apart! Yes, “follow the money” remains good advice, but one still has to DO something about it.

    Let’s make a list of the priorities that are judged on what they really accomplish, for the least money, and saves the most money. It used to be called “cost-effectiveness.”

    Jack Cohen’s ideas are mostly very cheap, and very effective, but he doesn’t claim they are the “be all and end all” SOLUTION. But the second anything goes into a report, it starts gathering dust. On the shelf and in our “brains.” That’s REALITY. So it has to be repeated, repeated, and repeated–but not in an authoritarian way; that creates RESISTANCE.

    In the real world, we need SYSTEM REDUNDANCY. Good as they are, Jack’s recommendations are not always going to be followed. We live in COMMUNITIES, despite the moats with which we surround our “mansions.” So the next LAYER should be an on-site, independent, self-sufficient, automatic, remote-controlled, ember/small fire/fuel and window cooling, inside and outside suppression system.

    THEN we need a BACK-UP, mobile, rapid-response, aerial- and ground-based wildland fire LAYER over that to contain the wildland fire at pre-planned but flexible defensive positions and spot-fire killing as a priority over them, with threatened structures as a priority within that plan. Keep crews out of the brush and other gotcha-prone situations, and forget hiring idle bulldozers. Some of those guys have set fires in the past, but the most important reason is relative ineffectiveness and the upspring of highly flashy, tinder fuels, right behind them.

    The fallacy of fuel reduction is that it’s expensive and ineffective. Forest “thinning” is just another word for logging out the most fire-resistant trees–the biggest ones. Not cutting out the ladder fuels and limbing up the bigger ones that throw the most seed. Beware of geeks bearing gifts of genius.

  4. Until ALL the agencies ( fed, state, local) have been reeducated on how to not waste the money they already claim doesnt go far enough on items like $800 Yeti coolers that get “ thrown away “ at the completion of an incident, sleeping pads that end up in a dumpster, Cubees that get a knife thru the side because its too much trouble to backhaul unused unopened water, large numbers of people on the payroll at basecamps that “ work” between 0600-0900 then nap the rest of the day until about 1600-1800 but are paid for 12s+, other folks who get paid straight thru from the time they leave station until they return even when they are sleeping and someone else is doing their work laundry for them etc…. there shouldn’t be any more money donated by taxpayers in the name of fire prevention. Its most likely that $300xxxxxx will be wasted anyway and the crying about how its not enough money to get things started in the right direction will just continue for the next millenia. The problem lies less in the amount of money but the who and how that money gets spent. Its too bad no one in any of these agencies takes their jobs seriously enough to try and run things like a profitable business vs the throw our hands up when the money dries up because we urinated it all away.
    The insight on the WUI and leapfrogging of fires is solid stuff. BUT again none of that money noted should be used for that. The State, County, Twp etc should be paying for those fuel reduction costs in those WUI areas directly. THEIR all mighty all knowing codes departments allowed those buildings and locations to be set up in a fire prone manner. And now its time to pay the tab that they reaped by sucking in all those tax dollars by allowing so many residences in such close quarters. Why should the rest of the country be paying for those authorities screw ups?
    I think the whole solution top to bottom can be summed up in 2 words… Fiscal Responsibility… It should be a basic and mandatory S class and like staying current on running saws or any other overhead fire slot it should be something that folks requal at periodically just to keep it fresh in everyones heads that their jobs are not all expense paid pyrotours…

      1. That can happen under current operational strategies and tactics, but they can be useful in spotting getting to the smoke quickly and for priority targets. But all strategy and tactics have to be well integrated for any one of them to work. Otherwise, I’d say billions, not to mention lives and equipment lost.

  5. Bill, “we” should all continue to learn, but that idea threatens many, including “experienced” fire professionals. Punishment for not having the right answer begins in grammar school, and develops a defensive state of mind in a huge proportion of the population. What is needed is an atmosphere of collegiality and congeniality (like you do here), more widely. And, change the education system from one that penalizes error to one that sees error as a part of the learning process. Somehow, there needs to be a face-saving way for everybody to realize that different ideas or evidence that run contrary to one’s fixed “knowledge” are not out to embarrass them. That means that “we,” especially I, need to work that reassurance into our communications free of any hint of condescension. For example, a recent subscriber interpreted Cohen’s piece as casting blame onto the homeowner, and another subscriber interpreted it the same way. I will appreciate any suggestions concerning how I can improve my posts in this regard.


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