Climate change to lessen safe prescribed burn days, change wildland firefighter schedules

A recent study from UCLA found that a projected 2° Celsius increase in global temperatures by 2060 would reduce the number of days when a prescribed burn could be safely set by 17 percent. The Four Corners region could see as much as a 29 percent decrease in favorable days, while the Pacific Southwest could see a 24 percent decrease.

The main driver behind the decrease in safe prescribed fire days is a combination of a decrease in large-diameter fuel moisture across seasons, an increase in vegetation aridity, and an increase in smoke-trapping low-level stagnation events.

“The narrowing of prescribed fire windows, as well as increases in extreme wildfire burning conditions at other times, will further challenge fire and land management agencies and entities already constrained by limited budgets and growing administrative burdens,” the study said.

However, the study also found that winter may increasingly become a viable season for prescribed fires with researchers predicting a four percent rise in favorable days, especially for northern states. Regions that have historically been too moist or too cool to support prescribed fire may see a boost in safe burn days, assisted by vegetation aridification. Additionally, decreases in safe prescribed burn days mainly affect forested locations, while non-forested areas would see substantial safe burn days.

The study ended by recommending a huge shift in USFS agency fire crew staffing. Seasonal wildland fire workers, who are usually laid off over the winter based on historical burn patterns, may need to capitalize on burn days during winter if safe burn days drastically decrease over the summer. The study also pointed to other research that found winter and spring to be underutilized seasons for prescribed fire in California.

“Our findings provide direct evidence supporting recent calls for an expanded year-round fire management workforce whose responsibilities extend beyond fighting wildfires to also encompass the management of prescribed fire,” the study said. “These findings also highlight the growing importance of tangible support—including increased funding and removal of existing regulatory barriers–for cultural burning practices by Indigenous fire practitioners, including via interagency partnerships.”

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6 thoughts on “Climate change to lessen safe prescribed burn days, change wildland firefighter schedules”

  1. Sounds like a good starting point for shift season tours. A crew of suppression folks from april-october and RX/fuels crew august-feb. A little overlap on both ends so they can still do both functions. The agency gets a year round well rested work force and the workforce keeps their seasonal lifestyle.

  2. If the USFS thinks they have a recruitment/retention problem now, just wait till they start forcing people to work both full wildfire seasons, and all winter to try to meet quixotic fuels targets. The reality is that very few people at the ground level in the WFF community wanted or asked for these extensions from 13/13 to PFT, at least in R1.

  3. @Tom thank you so much for calling me out on this. Was def an overstep of editorializing on my part and the article has since been updated. Thank you again!

  4. While many managed fires may come off without a hitch, an unacceptable number escape management to cause damage across ownerships. The “white hat” of prescribed fire has become a dingy gray. I believe fire can be an incredibly useful tool, but more attention needs to be paid to prescriptions and reasonable implementations. As we all realize, the situation is complicated.

    I see managed fires undertaken when preparedness levels are high, resources for contingency are scarce, and weather/environmental parameters are just too dicey for managers to be confident in containment. There is also internal pressure to accomplish more burned acres.

    I see aggressive grandiose contingencies implemented on the ground when it appears managers are simply taking advantage of opportunities to color additional target “treated” without the formalities of environmental review. Some of these “treated” acres may not even be tactically advantageous.

    New scientific information continues to point to harm to humans from long-term exposure to smoke. This not only affects wildland firefighters, but also communities inundated with smoke for weeks or more throughout the summer. The argument about whether it burns now or later seems much diluted if a conscious choice is made by land management agencies to accept managed fire effects as acceptable all of the way around, regardless.

    The Forest Service, in particular, needs to concentrate additional energy on selling successful burning programs which are environmentally, economically, and procedurally strong. They need to be frank and truly open about what they intend to do, what complications they need to overcome, when things don’t go according to plan, what they learn from mistakes, and how the intend to integrate that learning in changes to future practices. The learning and growing aspects of burning programs are frequently left out of the equation and definitely affect the veracity of programs overall.

    I thank you all for your service. This is not an easy gig. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but a successful burning program that is well supported by the public needs to have integrity. There is much room for improvement.

  5. We routinely rip off thousands of acres during peak burning season, and often as not get away with it. We need to be a little less litigious, and a lot less risk averse. We can talk about how badly we need to burn all day long, but we’re not actually getting anything done unless we take some risks and SEND IT.

  6. Prescribed fire was not “dismissed” a century ago, except perhaps in western fire literature such as the Show and Kotok article of 1924. But the issue of a lack of staff to conduct prescribed fires at various times of the year has been around for decades, especially for landscape-scale burns. The true solution has always been there: a dedicated staff to do the burns, and to not rely on staff hired primarily for suppression operations. A year-round workforce might be a solution, but until this is implemented, separate crews working separate seasons is the answer.


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