Learning from the centuries-old prescribed fire practices of Native Americans

Slater or Devil Fire
Slater/Devil Fire complex, September 15, 2020. InciWeb.

National Geographic has a long, interesting article about the differences in Northern California forests before and after the resident native Americans were prohibited from continuing their practice of prescribed burning. The author, Charles C. Mann, interviewed members of the Karuk tribe that were affected by last summer’s fires, including the Slater Fire that destroyed hundreds of structures near Happy Camp. They are hoping to restore, in a current-day context, a more robust prescribed fire program.

Below is an excerpt:

…The anti-flame campaign profoundly altered the American environment. Wildfire had been common in western forests. Much or most of that burning was due to the area’s first humans, who torched away the undergrowth that fueled future fires before it could build to dangerous levels. Thousands of years of controlled, targeted combustion created a landscape that was a patchwork of new and old burns—meadows, berry patches, park-like woodland, and so on. As these flames ceased, a new kind of forest emerged: a nearly fire-free ecosystem that was unlike anything that had existed since the end of the Ice Age.

[Kathy] McCovey is a retired Forest Service anthropologist. With [Joe] Jerry, she belongs to a Karuk fire-lighting brigade. For years they had been begging the Forest Service to let them burn the brush on the slopes around their homes. If you don’t let us burn, they had warned, there will be a catastrophic fire.

“Whoops,” McCovey said.

When something—lightning, a campfire, a downed utility line, a spark from a tool hitting a rock—sets the forest debris on fire, the flames climb the “fuel ladder” to shrubbery and young trees, then jump to the crowns of the older trees, creating a high wall of flame that can be caught by the wind. “We’re going to have to get these trees out,” she said, pointing to the mass of fire-blasted fir around us. “If they don’t, in five years it will burn again and be worse.” (Here’s how wildfires get started—and how to stop them.)

To McCovey, the problem was not just that the new forests were flammable. It was that they were “a food desert for animals and people.” The Forest Service and western state governments, like her ancestors, had managed the forest—had, in effect, farmed it. But the Forest Service and the states had farmed the forest to produce a single commodity: timber. McCovey’s ancestors had farmed the landscape for many reasons.

(end of excerpt)

More information is at the Indigenous Peoples Burn Network, a growing collaboration of Native nations, partnered with nonprofit organizations, academic researchers, and government agencies. It is a support network among Native American communities that are revitalizing their traditional fire practices in a contemporary context.

TBT: Senator John Kyl on reducing budgets for fuel reduction

Kiabab NF Gov Prairie Rx 1-2014
Kiabab National Forest in Arizona, Government Prairie prescribed fire, January, 2014.

For Throwback Thursday, let’s take another look at an article published on Wildfire Today February 12, 2008 about a topic that is still an issue 12 years later.

Senator John Kyl, a Republican from Arizona, in an article on his web site criticizes the President’s proposed budget for 2009 which reduces the funds allocated for fuel treatments.

“With almost 48 percent of the proposed budget going toward fire fighting, the Forest Service might be more appropriately called the “Fire Service.”

I believe funding for fighting fires must be complemented by adequate funding for preventing them. Proactive management of our forests not only is the best tool in combating wildfires, it is critical to restoring forest health and improving habitats for diverse species.

Typically, there are two complimentary methods of treatment: mechanical thinning of brush and smaller diameter trees, and prescribed burning. These treatments open up forests so they are less susceptible to “hot” crown fires. More importantly, reducing competition for soil nutrients, water, and sunlight immediately enhances the health of the trees, allowing them to grow bigger and fend off diseases and deadly insects like bark beetles.”

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

American Elk prescribed fire Wind Cave National Park
A firefighter ignites the American Elk prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, October 20, 2010. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

Research finds the greatest barrier to conducting prescribed fires is lack of capacity and funding

Air quality is often thought to be a key barrier

Red Valley Rx Burn Custer St Pk, South Dakota
Red Valle Rx Burn Custer St Park, South Dakota, April 15, 2004. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From research conducted by: Schultz, Courtney A. ; McCaffrey, Sarah M. ; Huber-Stearns, Heidi R. , 2019.

Despite broad recognition of its value, managers are not able to use prescribed fire at the levels necessary to improve landscape resiliency in the western United States. A better understanding of policy barriers and opportunities is therefore needed. Limited research suggests that a range of factors constrain prescribed fire implementation including narrow burn windows, air quality regulations, lack of adequate funding and personnel, and other environmental laws. Through interviews conducted in 11 western states, we investigated the degree to which these factors currently act as barriers and the strategies being used to overcome key barriers for prescribed fire application on United States Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. We asked the following questions: (1) What are the most significant policy barriers to prescribed fire on USFS and BLM lands in the West? (2) What are potential opportunities and mechanisms for change?

The barriers to prescribed fire that were most frequently identified by our interviewees were lack of adequate capacity and funding, along with a need for greater leadership direction and incentives to apply prescribed fire. Interviewees emphasized that owing to a lack of incentives and the prevalence of risk aversion at multiple agency levels, active prescribed fire programs depend on the leadership and commitment of individual decision-makers and fire managers. 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.

Our findings highlight the importance of contextualized investigation into policy barriers and the role of collaborative and multilevel governance approaches for addressing complex land management challenges. This research has broader implications for fire and natural hazard management. It is important in a complex governance system to continue to assess where barriers lie and how they can be addressed. Challenges will change over time, requiring a nuanced and ongoing contextual approach to understanding impediments to improving practice.

Key Findings

  • Findings support previous survey work that found that capacity is a major limitation for applying prescribed fire. We found less support for previous findings that air quality regulation is consistently a significant barrier, except in specific locations.
  • Interviewees emphasized that owing to a lack of incentives and the prevalence of risk aversion at multiple agency levels, active prescribed fire programs depend on the leadership and commitment of individual decision-makers and fire managers.
  • Successful approaches rely on collaborative forums and positions that allow communication, problem solving, and resource sharing among federal and state partners, and that facilitate dialogue between air-quality regulators and land managers.
  • Although not a focus in the present work, interviewees also discussed other barriers to burning, like drought conditions, short burn windows, and the presence of challenging landscape conditions, such as the presence of invasive cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), that limit their ability to conduct prescribed fire.

The findings above are based on:
Policy barriers and opportunities for prescribed fire application in the western United States
Schultz, Courtney A. ; McCaffrey, Sarah M. ; Huber-Stearns, Heidi R. , 2019

Wilderness fire: suppress, or manage it?

Wilderness Fire decisions
Screenshot from the video below.

The video below produced by the Northern Rockies Fire Science Network is intended to spark discussion about managing fire for resource benefit on public lands. It features interviews with 22 fire practitioners, most of whom are very well known in the wildland fire community.

Here is a sample from the 12-minute film, spoken by Dick Bahr, National Park Service Program Lead for Fire Science and Ecology:

We have really good modeling now. … If you’re not comfortable with where it’s going to get or you’re concerned about what it’s going to burn up — do you take on the fire, or do you take on protection of what you’re going to do? And now the big shift is, we have now the opportunity, go put the money and the effort into protecting that point you’re worried about losing and let the fire do what it’s supposed to do…

You’re going to win a few, you’re going to lose a few. And it’s OK to lose, but you’ve got to learn from them.

One of the speakers mentions firefighter fatality statistics. Our article “Wildfire Fatality Trends” (January 15, 2016) addressed that topic.

Estimated cost for prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore fireworks site was $30,000

The President said he would attend the event July 3 event

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Visitors can almost see the sculpture at Mount Rushmore during the prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

President Trump said in an interview Friday that he intends to travel to South Dakota to see the fireworks as they explode over the Mount Rushmore sculpture July 3.

The 260-acre prescribed fire completed at the Memorial April 29 was planned at least in part to reduce the chances of fireworks igniting what would be the 21st wildfire started by the devices during Independence Day ceremonies over an 11-year span.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the New York Post:

Trump confirmed the visit during a radio interview Friday with conservative pundit and news aggregator Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent.

“I got fireworks. For 20 years or something it hasn’t been allowed for environmental reasons, you believe that one? It’s all stone,” Trump said. “I got it approved, so I’m going to go there on July 3 and they’re gonna have the big fireworks.”

On at least two occasions, May 7, 2019 and December 18, 2019, President Trump said fireworks were going to be shot over Mount Rushmore long before the Environmental Assessment process was finished.

The exact price tag for last week’s prescribed fire has not been tabulated, but Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the Memorial’s Chief of Interpretation and Education, told us the estimated expenditure was $30,000. It was conducted by a total of 54 personnel, including 24 firefighters from the National Park Service, 8 from the State of South Dakota, 6 from the State of North Dakota, 8 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 4 from the Department of Defense and 2 local volunteer fire department engines.

This was the first broadcast burn ever conducted at the Memorial. One of the objectives in the Incident Action Plan for the project was to “reduce the likelihood of unwanted ignitions in this area.”

Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.