“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.”