A recent study says the American West should be doing more prescribed burns to keep forests healthy and to help lessen the impacts of wildfires across our region. It also concluded that there needs to be a change in how we perceive the practice out here for that to happen.
Seventy-five years ago, Smokey the Bear first told the American public his famous catchphrase, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
The Smokey the Bear ad campaign began in 1944. It was part of an effort by the U.S. Forest Service to communicate to the public that fires, as a whole, were bad. At the time, the agency’s fire management policy stated that all wildfires needed to be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day after they’re first spotted.
“The historical legacy is what really is driving the modern trends,” says Crystal Kolden, associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho.
Part of that legacy she says, is the Great Fire of 1910. That blaze burned 3 million acres in northern Idaho and western Montana, with smoke being seen as far away as New York state. And it was this perception of fire that stayed in the American consciousness for much of the 20th Century.
“It’s the death and destruction image of fire,” says Kolden.
She says while aggressive fire suppression techniques were underway in the West, the southeastern region of the U.S. was trying something else.
“They started using prescribed fires in the Southeast, actually not to reduce wildfire risk, but to improve habitat for species that they like to hunt,” she adds.
Kolden says that’s helped to change the public sentiment around the practice in that region where they see fires as an intentional process to control the landscape.
“And it’s the exact opposite in the West,” Kolden says. “Most Westerners have never seen a prescribed fire. It’s much more likely that they’ve seen a wildfire.”
Kolden recently published an article in the journal Fire. In it, she states that other areas of the country are increasing usage of prescribed fires, including a rise across Indian Country. But in the West, the practice has been decreasing, and she says that’s a problem.
“Science has only increased in its findings that prescribed fire is not only a very good way to mitigate wildfire risk, but that it’s actually really a necessary component for healthy ecosystems,” Kolden says.
That might sound counterintuitive, but think of it this way. Prescribed fires burn grass, brush and undergrowth, things that help fuel wildfires. These controlled burns also provide the heat needed for things like Sequoia and Redwood trees to crack open their cones and release seeds. But they also come with risk.
The Little Valley Fire began south of Reno in fall of 2016 following a prescribed burn. High winds in the area carried embers from that blaze, which ignited a wildfire. By the end of it all, it burned nearly 2,300 acres and destroyed 23 homes.
The Nevada Division of Forestry was in charge of the controlled fire and was later found guilty of gross negligence. This year, the division reached a $25 million settlement with victims.
“Even with the best intentions and the best written plan, things can still go wrong,” says Kacey KC, the Nevada state forester.
KC says since the Little Valley Fire, the division has rewritten its policies concerning prescribed fires to plan for bigger environmental impacts than they previously had predicted.
“It’s a different environment now, with climate change, with the current condition of our forests and our rangelands, you can expect a lot more of these extreme environmental wind impacts,” says KC.
Planning a prescribed burn is pretty complex as is. KC says land managers look at dozens of variables, from relative humidity to wind conditions to the desired fuel to be burned—and of course, contingency plans in case anything goes wrong.
“The planning process usually needs to start almost a year in advance. There’s a lot of modeling that needs to go on, there’s a lot of thought that needs to go into it, there’s a lot of coordination,” she says.
And then you’ve got to have the right conditions. KC says often times, plans sit dormant for years, because the weather just isn’t right for a burn. It’s all very complicated, and as Ryan Elliott says, controlled burns will never be a silver bullet. Elliot is a fire investigator for the Bureau of Land Management. And he does say there is one simple fix. Most fires are started by humans.
“Do whatever you can to not start them. And that sounds like a glib answer, but it’s the truth,” he says.
So, maybe after 75 years, we still have something to learn from Smokey the Bear.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of Wyoming Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.