Why the South is decades ahead of the West in wildfire prevention

“Florida has done prescribed burns on more than 1.6 million acres so far this year. California has only burned around 35,000 acres. The state is 2.5 times larger than Florida.”

By Lauren Sommer
In early May, flames began to spread through a pine forest, consuming a dense carpet of leaves and underbrush. The burn was the definition of a “good fire,” intentionally ignited to clear vegetation that could fuel future infernos.

It happened in the state leading the nation in controlled burns: Florida.

As Western states contend with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, some are looking to the Southeastern U.S., where prescribed fire is widespread thanks to policies put in place decades ago. From 1998 to 2018, 70% of all controlled burning in the country was in the Southeast.

While a continent apart, both regions have a similar need for fire. For thousands of years, forests and woodlands experienced regular burning, both sparked by lightning and used by Native American tribes, which prevented the build up of flammable growth. Without fire, the landscape is prone to intense, potentially devastating wildfires.

Despite that risk, Western states have struggled to expand the use of controlled burns. This month, the U.S. Forest Service suspended them because of the extensive fires burning in record-dry conditions.

Now, several Western states are moving to adopt the fire policies pioneered by Florida and other Southern states as a hedge against the future. They include training problems for burn leaders and providing liability protection for them. The bigger challenge is changing the culture around fire, so that residents know that tolerating a little smoke from good fires can help stop the destructive blazes that cloud the air for weeks.

“We have this generational gap in fire knowledge in the Western U.S. that we’re trying to rebuild now,” says Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension. “But Florida and the Southeast still have it.”

Source: Why the South is decades ahead of the West in wildfire prevention – Oregon Public Broadcasting, 2021-08-31

USDA, Partners Unveil New Fire Mapping Tool with National Wildfire Management Implications

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today unveiled the new Southeast FireMap, a fire mapping tool for the Southeastern United States that enables resource managers to improve their regional or local approaches to managing wildfire risk and fire management needs through targeted prescribed burns and training. Fire management helps improve forest ecosystem health, increases timber values, reduces the risk of wildfire damage to life and property, reduces ticks and other pests, protects drinking water, and renews healthy ecosystems supporting wildlife habitat, especially in fire-dependent longleaf pine forests.

The SE FireMap version 1.0 decision support tool will map all detectable fires, including managed prescribed burns and wildfires, across nine states. The map and associated tools aim to improve fire management in urban and rural communities through remote sensing and will track both prescribed fire and wildfires throughout Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

The SE FireMap version 1.0 is a Google Earth Engine product and data sharing is available for conservation and community planning purposes. To see the mapping products or request data sharing, visit the partnerships’ Wildland Fire Portal or the SE FireMap. For more information, the Southern Fire Exchange will host a webinar on April 16, 2021. Follow this link to register.

Source: USDA, Partners Unveil New Fire Mapping Tool with National Wildfire Management Implications – NRCS, 2021-03-30

Is Florida the Answer to California’s Fire Problem?

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.

Source: Is Florida the Answer to California’s Fire Problem? – Sierra, 2019-11-16

A Forest Expert Team In Spain Fights Fire With Fire — Literally

By Aaron Labaree
The biggest wildfire in 20 years in Spain’s Catalonia region began on June 26, when a pile of chicken manure, baking in record high temperatures, burst into flames.

Fed by strong winds, the flames spread quickly, igniting dry brush and pine forest. In three days the fire burned more than 16,000 acres, and it took more than 500 firefighters to put it out.

Fires in California and the Amazon rainforest have grabbed attention, but large areas of Europe’s forests also were consumed this summer. Blazes nearly the size of the one in Catalonia tore through Spain’s Canary Islands, the south of France and the Greek islands of Evia and Samos.

From January to mid-October, the European Union has had almost triple the average number of wildfires for the same period over the past decade, with more than 800,000 acres burned so far this year, according to the European Forest Fire Information System.

Heat waves like the ones Europe experienced in 2019 are far more likely to happen because of the changing climate. And hot, dry conditions contribute to making massive fires no longer just a southern European problem: Last year Sweden saw its biggest fires in modern history, and this year the United Kingdom had a record number of them.

Now, like in the United States, firefighters and ecologists in Europe are starting to realize that putting out each fire isn’t possible or desirable. To prevent megafires, experts say, the authorities have to let forests burn naturally — and sometimes even set fires on purpose.

“We need to learn to live with fire, the same way we do with tornadoes or snowstorms,” says Marc Castellnou, chief analyst for a special forest unit of Catalonia’s fire services, known by its Catalan initials GRAF.

The wildfire problem is partly a result of decades of prevention. Fire plays a natural role in a healthy forest, burning away brush, dead trees and plant debris, while leaving many mature trees alive. But to protect human habitation, officials have tried to allow almost no fires to burn. The result is forests that are packed with undergrowth providing kindling and enormous unbroken stocks of trees to burn — megafires waiting to happen.

Europe’s forests have reached this dangerous state for another reason not seen in the U.S.: rural abandonment.

“When I was growing up, all of this was harvest — hazelnuts and olives,” says Rut Domènech, a forest expert who lives in Ribera d’Ebre, the county in Catalonia’s Tarragona province where the recent fires took place, pointing at what is now continuous forest. In the 1950s, the price of these and other crops plummeted with international competition and farmers were forced to move to cities.

Over much of Europe, rural abandonment has led to once-cultivated fields being given back to nature. In the 50 years after World War II, Western Europe’s forest area increased almost 30%. The continent’s land is now more than 40% forested.

Mediterranean shepherds and farmers have been using fire to manage the landscape for thousands of years. But most techniques used by firefighters today were developed in the United States, where the record-setting blazes of the past 10 years have shown the limits of suppression alone. In the U.S. as well as Europe, the change in approach toward fire is just beginning.

“In the scientific community, it’s understood we need to get fire back on the landscape,” says Rod Linn, a climate modeler at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. “And most fire practitioners have come to grips with fire having a lot of benefits. But with the public, there’s work to do to get it socialized, to get people aware that just because you see smoke, it’s not necessarily bad.”

Source: A Forest Expert Team In Spain Fights Fire With Fire — Literally – Blue Ridge Public Radio, 2019-10-23

Native approaches to fire management could revitalize communities, Stanford researchers find

By Rob Jordan
It costs more than a new iPhone XS, and it’s made out of hazelnut shrub stems. Traditional baby baskets of Northern California’s Yurok and Karuk tribes come at a premium not only because they are handcrafted by skilled weavers, but because the stems required to make them are found only in forest understory areas experiencing a type of controlled burn once practiced by the tribes but suppressed for more than a century.

A new Stanford-led study with the U.S. Forest Service in collaboration with the Yurok and Karuk tribes found that incorporating traditional techniques into current fire suppression practices could help revitalize American Indian cultures, economies and livelihoods, while continuing to reduce wildfire risks. The findings could inform plans to incorporate the cultural burning practices into forest management across an area one and a half times the size of Rhode Island.

“Burning connects many tribal members to an ancestral practice that they know has immense ecological and social benefit especially in the aftermath of industrial timber activity and ongoing economic austerity,” said study lead author Tony Marks-Block, a doctoral candidate in anthropology who worked with Lisa Curran, the Roger and Cynthia Lang Professor in Environmental Anthrolopogy.

“We must have fire in order to continue the traditions of our people,” said Margo Robbins, a Yurok basket weaver and director of the Yurok Cultural Fire Management Council who advised the researchers. “There is such a thing as good fire.”

The study, published in Forest Ecology and Management, replicates Yurok and Karuk fire treatments that involve cutting and burning hazelnut shrub stems. The approach increased the production of high-quality stems (straight, unbranched and free of insect marks or bark blemishes) needed to make culturally significant items such as baby baskets and fish traps up to 10-fold compared with untreated shrubs.

Reducing fuel load

Previous studies have shown that repeated prescribed burning reduces fuel for wildfires, thus reducing their intensity and size in seasonally dry forests such as the one the researchers studied in the Klamath Basin area near the border with Oregon. This study was part of a larger exploration of prescribed burns being carried out by Stanford and U.S. Forest Service researchers who collaborated with the Yurok and Karuk tribes to evaluate traditional fire management treatments. Together, they worked with a consortium of federal and state agencies and nongovernmental organizations across 5,570 acres in the Klamath Basin.

The consortium has proposed expanding these “cultural burns” – which have been greatly constrained throughout the tribes’ ancestral lands – across more than 1 million acres of federal and tribal lands that are currently managed with techniques including less targeted controlled burns or brush removal.

Source: Native approaches to fire management could revitalize communities, Stanford researchers find – Stanford news Service, 2019-08-27

A Trailblazing Plan to Fight California Wildfires

By Nicola Twilley
Throughout the twentieth century, federal policy focussed on putting out fires as quickly as possible, but preventing megafires requires a different approach.

Six of the ten worst fires in California’s history have occurred in the past eighteen months, and last year’s fire season was the deadliest and most destructive on record. More than a hundred people were killed, and more than seventeen thousand homes destroyed. Experts have warned that this year’s fire season could be even worse, in part because record-breaking rains early this year spurred the growth of brush and grasses, which have since dried out, creating more fuel. Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a wildfire state of emergency in March, months before fire season would normally begin.

The tools and techniques capable of stopping megafires remain elusive, but in the past few decades a scientific consensus has emerged on how to prevent them: prescribed burns. When flames are kept small and close to the ground, they clear the leaf litter, pine needles, and scrub that fuel wildfire, and consume saplings and low-level branches that would otherwise act as a ladder conveying fire to the canopy. With the competing vegetation cleared out, the remaining trees grow larger, developing a layer of bark thick enough to shield them from all but the hottest blazes. California’s state legislature recently passed a bill earmarking thirty-five million dollars a year for fuel-reduction projects.

“And yet no one is actually burning,” Jeff Brown, the manager of a field station in the Tahoe National Forest, told me when I visited him there recently. Although prescribed burns have been part of federal fire policy since 1995, last year the Forest Service performed them on just one per cent—some sixty thousand acres—of its land in the Sierra Nevada. “We need to be burning close to a million acres each year, just in the Sierras, or it’s over,” Brown said. The shortfall has several causes, but, some fifteen years ago, Brown set himself the almost impossible task of devising a plan for the forest he helps maintain that would be sophisticated enough to overcome all obstacles. Now he is coördinating an urgent effort to replicate his template across the Sierra Nevada.

Source: A Trailblazing Plan to Fight California Wildfires – The New Yorker, 2019-08-19

‘If we don’t burn it, nature will’: Georgia blazes old fears, leads nation in prescribed fire

By Samantha Max and Maya Miller
As wildfires ravage the West, environmentalists and landowners in Georgia and the Southeast are preventing uncontrolled blazes and preserving the environment with prescribed burns.

Mark Melvin lit a match and dropped it to the forest floor. He then lit another and another, blazing a circle of flames around a towering pine tree.

Soon, a bright orange glow swallowed 113 acres of brush, radiating a skin-piercing heat. A thick fog rose from the ground, casting a shadow on the amber tree trunks looming above.

Lighting fires is like playing a game of chess, Melvin said. You always have to be one step ahead.

“I can see the fire before I light it,” he said.

Melvin is no arsonist. He’s a forest manager, responsible for about 18,000 acres of woods at the Joseph W. Jones Center at Ichauway Plantation in southwest Georgia. The expansive range, once the quail hunting preserve of Coca-Cola’s former president and host to distinguished guests like former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is now a living laboratory for some of the country’s leading environmental scientists.

Each winter for the last two decades, Melvin has set fires to cement that legacy. On days when the weather and wind allow, he makes a detailed plan, applies for a burn permit from the Georgia Forestry Commission, and suits up in a mustard jacket and brown leather boots for a few hours of fire and smoke.

For him, fire is not just destructive — it’s an agent of change. The flames lick away layers of pine needles and fallen leaves, clearing a path for sunlight to seep in and sprout fresh shoots of grass.

Forests need fire. Without them, plants die, animals leave, and mounds of flammable undergrowth pile high. Rather than wait for a lightning strike or cigarette butt to spark an uncontrollable wave of flames, Melvin conducts controlled burns, also known as prescribed fire.

“Just like a doctor prescribes medication to keep their patient healthy, we prescribe fire to keep the forest healthy,” Melvin said.

Read more here: https://www.macon.com/news/state/georgia/article230380414.html#storylink=cpy

Source: ‘If we don’t burn it, nature will’: Georgia blazes old fears, leads nation in prescribed fire – The Telegraph, 2019-06-11

To Control Forest Fires, Western States Light More of Their Own

By Sophie Quinton
RUSTIC, Colo. — Tramping over a charred mountainside here one foggy morning, Matt Champa glowed with satisfaction. “Deer and elk will love this,” said the U.S. Forest Service “burn boss,” gesturing to a cluster of blackened trees that eventually will fall and create more space for forage plants.

Champa and his team set fire to this area last month, part of the 1,900-acre Pingree Hill prescribed burn on the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests and Pawnee National Grassland to improve wildlife habitat and create space that firefighters could use to defend nearby residents and the Cache la Poudre River from a wildfire.

The Forest Service and its partners hope over the next decade to carry out a series of such prescribed burns in Northern Colorado to protect communities and the river, which supplies water to about 300,000 people.

Public and private landowners across the West are increasingly using prescribed fire to reduce wildfire danger. Over 3 million acres were treated with prescribed fire in Western states in 2017, up from the roughly 2 million in 2011, according to a survey by the National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils Inc.

Source: To Control Forest Fires, Western States Light More of Their Own – PEW Stateline, 2019-05-16