By James Steinbauer
The secret to fewer fires may be having more people in the state who can start them.
Scientists and land managers almost universally agree that prescribed fire is the single best tool available to help mitigate wildfire risk. Landowners in the American Southeast use more prescribed fire than in any other part of the country. But across much of the American West—which has captured an outsize proportion of the public imagination around wildfire—scientists say land management agencies aren’t using fire nearly enough.
In 2017, federal and state forest managers, ranchers, and private property owners in Florida, which many fire scientists consider the prescribed fire capital of the country, burned more than 2 million acres, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Climate Central. That same year, California—which is twice the size of Florida and has six times more acres in public land—burned less than 50,000 acres. Oregon burned 48,000, Idaho 33,000, Montana 24,000, and Nevada 5,000.
Like in Florida, Native American cultures throughout the United States used fire to manage the land. But in the West, much of the land taken from Indigenous groups was redrawn as public “forest preserves.” In the absence of Native American land management, many of the places where they had previously used fire to clear the landscape became dense and overgrown. In 1910, a series of wildfires burned more than 3 million acres of forest in Montana, Idaho, and Washington. Known collectively as the Big Blowup, the blazes spooked the nascent US Forest Service into adopting a policy that demanded all fires be put out by 10 A.M. the day after they were reported. Because much of this land was publicly owned, federal land management agencies could efficiently enforce this policy of suppression.
In southeastern states, such as Florida, where most forestland is privately owned, people simply never stopped burning it. Even the US Forest Service in the Southeast dabbled with prescribed fire—the first-ever lit on federal land was in Osceola National Forest in 1943.