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.

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 from the Creek Fire 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

Wildfire burns structures and closes I-10 south of Milton, Florida

Started from an escaped prescribed fire on May 4

map Five Mile Fire Milton Florida Interstate 10
Map showing heat detected on the Five Mile Swamp Fire by a satellite at 2:48 a.m. CDT May 7, 2020.

(UPDATED at 9:50 a.m. CDT May 7, 2020)

Satellite data collected overnight shows heat from the Five Mile Swamp Fire well south of Interstate 10 on both sides of Garcon Point Road approaching Blackwater Bay.


(Originally published at 9 p.m. CDT May 6, 2020)

map Five Mile Fire Milton Florida Interstate 10
Map showing heat detected on the Five Mile Swamp Fire by a satellite at 3:24 p.m. CDT May 6, 2020.

Strong winds and low relative humidity caused a wildfire in the panhandle of Florida to grow about eight times its size Wednesday. The Five Mile Swamp Fire started from an escaped prescribed fire Monday afternoon and by Wednesday afternoon had blackened approximately 2,000 acres (up from 250 acres Wednesday morning) forcing the closure of Interstate 10 south of Milton, Florida.

The fire is burning on both sides of Interstate 10 about five miles south of Milton. The Florida Forest Service (FFS) reports several structures south of I-10 have been damaged or destroyed.

On Wednesday resources working the fire included 18 tractor/plow units, 3 helicopters, and firefighters from multiple departments throughout Santa Rosa County.

Residents of Ski Lane north of I-10, and those south of I-10 and east of Avalon Boulevard have been ordered to evacuate.

About 1,100 residences are threatened by the Five Mile Swamp Fire.

Five Mile Fire Milton Florida Interstate 10

The prescribed fire from which the wildfire escaped was on private land east of the former Moors golf course, east of Avalon Blvd., and north of I-10. Described as a “#GoodFire” by the Florida Forest Service in a May 4 tweet, it was expected to burn only 250 acres.

Forest Service reverses course on prescribed fires

Postponed on all forests in March, then allowed Region by Region in April

risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk of conducting prescribed fires based on COVID-19 pandemic conditions in mid-March, 2020. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

In mid-March the U.S. Forest Service cancelled or postponed all ignitions of prescribed fires in their Rocky Mountain Region (comprised of five states), the 13 states in the Southern Region, and California. Back then we reached out to the Forest Service’s Washington Office to ask, “Nationwide, have all prescribed fires been cancelled or postponed because of COVID-19?”  On March 23 the Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the FS in Washington, Kaari Carpenter, confirmed that they were:

Our mission-critical work, such as suppressing wildfires, and other public service responsibilities, will continue within appropriate risk management strategies, current guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, and local health and safety guidelines. All new ignitions for prescribed fire have been postponed until further notice.

After hearing that prescribed fires on Forest Service lands might be allowed again, we checked with Stanton Florea, who recently transferred from a public information position in the California regional office to a similar position for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise that had been vacant. After a week, on April 30 we received what was described as “our response to your question”, which presumably came from or was approved by a government office in Washington.

The USDA Forest Service has not issued agency-wide direction to pause prescribed burning activities. Each region has been making their own decisions in terms of conducting prescribed burning activities.

Last week the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region (California) included this announcement in a newsletter:

Forest Service prescribed fire announcement
USFS

In March, the Rocky Mountain Region compiled a thoughtful analysis of the risk of conducting prescribed fires, taking many factors into consideration. The chart at the top of the page was the risk at the time that led to the decision to postpone the projects in the region. Below is the assessment of the conditions they established that would be necessary to allow prescribed fires to be restored after the COVID-19 pandemic has improved.

risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk that would allow prescribed fires to be restored after COVID-19 conditions have improved. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

If the Forest Service is going to use the above analysis to justify reinstating prescribed fire ignitions, then they will have decided that:

  • The ability to mitigate the risk changed from Moderate to Easy;
  • Risk to the public changed from High/Moderate to Moderate;
  • Social/Political moved from High to Moderate, and
  • Risk to employees changed from High/Moderate to Moderate.

The experience of suppressing a small to moderate-sized wildfire in Arizona on April 17 proved that managing the fire, which included the extraction of a firefighter with a broken ankle, proved to be much more complex than before the COVID-19 pandemic. If the fire had been large and the injury life-threatening, the difficulties would have been even more problematic.

The Bureau of Land Management has been conducting prescribed fires for weeks at least, and on April 29 the National Park Service initiated the first ever broadcast prescribed fire in Mount Rushmore National Memorial in preparation for Donald Trump’s fireworks show on July 3.

Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.

The New York Times reports that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection plans to burn roughly 3,200 acres over the next two months.

Below is an excerpt from their article, which addresses the effects of prescribed fire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Officials at CAL FIRE said they were taking steps to limit the health effects from their controlled burns, such as analyzing wind conditions to make sure smoke will not blow toward hospitals. Each burn, which can range in size from a few acres to several hundred, also requires advance approval from local air quality management boards, which in turn typically consult with local public health agencies.

Officials from several air quality boards and public health agencies downplayed the harm that controlled burns could inflict on those infected with Covid-19. “If they’re fighting for every breath, they’re in the hospital and not exposed to the smoky air,” said Lisa Almaguer, a spokeswoman for the Butte County public health department. “If they have moderate to severe symptoms then they’re home and in bed.”

Park Service conducts prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore

One firefighter said it was to prepare for the July 3 fireworks show

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

Mount Rushmore National Memorial conducted a prescribed fire Wednesday. The plan conceived weeks ago, according to what one of the firefighters told photographer Paul Horsted, was to burn 260 acres in preparation for exploding fireworks over the sculpture on July 3. Yesterday the National Park Service released the results of the Environmental Assessment which found there would be “no significant impact” from the fireworks that were announced by President Trump May 7, 2019.

In revealing the prescribed fire today the NPS said in a statement, “The burn objective is to reduce the build-up of dead fuels, in order to reduce the chance of higher severity fires.”

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

Mount Rushmore National Memorial has successfully completed several fuel-reduction projects in the past to slow the growth of wildfires. These projects have primarily included mechanical thinning and pile burning, but no significant prescribed fires.

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
A firefighter monitors a prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

Some of the negative aspects of exploding fireworks over the sculpture, as learned from the 11 times it has been done in the past, include three primary issues:

1. Wildfires
During those 11 events 20 documented wildfires were ignited by the fireworks in the middle of the wildfire season.

2. Carcinogens in the water
In 2016 the U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the ground and surface water at Mount Rushmore are contaminated with perchlorate, a carcinogen which is a component of rocket fuels, fireworks, and explosives. They determined that the chemical came from the fireworks over the 12-year period during which they were used.

3. Garbage
The trash dropped by the exploding shells onto the Monument and the forest can never be completely picked up. Left on the ground are unexploded shells, wadding, plastic, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper; stuff that can never be totally removed in the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
A visitor photographs a prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

We thank photographer Paul Horsted for allowing us to use his photos. More of his shots including a time-lapse are at his Facebook page.

Researchers say thinning forests or prescribed fire before drought reduced tree loss

Treated areas had 15 percent less mortality

Whaley prescribed fire
A firefighter monitors the Whaley prescribed fire in the Black Hills National Forest, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From the University of California – Davis

Thinning forests and conducting prescribed burns may help preserve trees in future droughts and bark beetle epidemics expected under climate change, suggests a study from the University of California, Davis.

The study, published in the journal Ecological Applications, found that thinning and prescribed fire treatments reduced the number of trees that died during the bark beetle epidemic and drought that killed more than 129 million trees across the Sierra Nevada between 2012-2016.

“By thinning forests, we can reduce water stress and make forests more resilient to drought and climate change,” said the study’s lead author, Christina Restaino, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy when the study was conducted.

The study also indicated that current rates of treatment are not sufficient to reduce the impacts of hotter droughts and large-scale bark beetle outbreaks. Expanding the use of managed fire under moderate fire-weather conditions, along with strategic thinning and prescribed burn treatments, may increase resilience across the forest, the researchers said.

“There are currently too many straws in the cup,” said Restiano. “Denser forests use more water. We’re learning that fuel treatments used to reduce fire risk have multiple benefits. Forests that are more open and less dense are stronger in the face of insect outbreaks, too.”

TREATMENT HELPS

For the study, researchers collected plot data in 2017 at 10 pairs of treated and untreated sites stretching from Eldorado National Forest to Sierra National Forest in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. They compared the effects of pre-drought thinning and prescribed burn treatments at those sites for four major species: ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir and incense cedar.

Treated areas generally had lower stand densities, bigger tree diameters and more pines, which were historically dominant.

Ponderosa pine experienced the greatest mortality of the species studied (40 percent) during the drought and beetle outbreak. But its mortality was significantly lower in treated stands. In untreated areas, the chance any one tree would die was about 45 percent. In treated stands, that chance went down to 30 percent.

Both ponderosa and sugar pine trees died more in places where their diameters were larger, suggesting insects may prefer larger trees, especially when the trees are stressed. The study demonstrates that removing smaller trees through thinning and prescribed burns can help reduce the stress in larger trees, which restoration efforts prioritize.

BE PROACTIVE

“It’s important to be proactive,” said coauthor Derek Young, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “This is not the kind of thing to start only when the drought starts. It has to be done beforehand.”

The study also notes that forest managers in the Sierra Nevada might consider cultivating a broader variety of species to buffer against insects and disease, as well as shifting from pines to more resilient hardwood species, like oaks and madrone — a transition underway in other semi-arid and Mediterranean climates.

Funding was provided for the study by the USDA Forest Service Forest Health Protection program, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, and the US Geological Survey Southwest Climate Science Center.


Ecological Applications, which published the study paid for by the US Forest Service and the USGS, is charging taxpayers $49 if they want a copy.