Western US Needs More Controlled Burns

Wildfires have ravished much of the western United States in recent years. One (long-on-the-books) solution for warding off larger, more destructive wildfires has been to fight fire with fire through the use of intentionally set prescribed burns.

A growing body of scientific research now strongly suggests that prescribed burns can prevent more destructive wildfires. What’s more, official policy now also recognizes the value of prescribed burns. However, for all the talk about prescribed burning, the federal and state agencies that manage our nation’s forests and wildfires may not have been doing enough prescribed burns in recent years to reduce the risk of large fires, especially in the American West.

That’s the conclusion of a study published in the journal Fire with the telling title, “We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Fire in the Western United States to Mitigate Wildfire Risk.”

The study, written by fire researcher Crystal Kolden, is a detailed analysis of which agencies and organizations are conducting prescribed burns, where in the US they are being performed, and to what extent.

As the spoiler-alert title flatly spells out, Kolden makes the argument that the West isn’t doing enough prescribed burns. In a nutshell, Kolden’s argument is that the West needs more prescribed burns in order to limit what has become a dangerous buildup of fuel in our region’s forests.

But while Kolden’s conclusion might not be surprising to our readers—and perhaps is something of a well, duh! to wildland firefighters and foresters—the details of her analysis are both instructive and telling for those hoping to put fire back on the Western landscape in a controlled way.

Let’s start with the initial complication that kicks of Kolden’s analysis: the legacy of fire suppression in the West.

Much has been written about the fire deficit in the West, and Kolden has to unload this concept to establish her thesis. The idea here is simple: Most forest ecosystems in the American West have adapted themselves to periodic, low-intensity fires. In fact, many forests need a certain amount of fire to maintain healthy ecosystems. However, there’s a problem. Years of firefighting, or fire suppression, has led to a dangerous buildup of fuel in the West’s forests that now needs just the right ignition source to burn. Many Western forests, in other words, are past due for fires. Hence the term fire deficit.

To take just one example cited by Kolden that’s also close to home, researchers have estimated that from 1984 to 2015, wildfires here in the Pacific Northwest burned 1.6 million hectares (over 6,000 square miles). This sounds impressive until you consider that the region would have seen about 15–21 million hectares (60,000–80,000 sq. miles) burned in the absence of fire suppression. In other words, the Pacific Northwest, like much of the American West, is running in the red as far as fires go.

Establishing the presence of a fire deficit, however, isn’t the real meat (apologies to any vegan readers) of Kolden’s argument, rather just the initial statement of the problem that needs solving—the dead body, if you will, at the start of the murder mystery. Which agencies are responsible for the West’s fire deficit is where things get interesting.

There are five main federal agencies responsible for managing forests to prevent wildfires through various activities, including prescribed burning: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Fish and Wildfire Service (FWS), the National Parks Service (NPS), and the US Forest Service (USFS).

To figure out to what extent each agency has used prescribed burns and where in the US these prescribed burns have taken place, Kolden scoured the archives of the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) for information about prescribed burns listed for the years 1998–2018.

Because the five federal agencies listed above are not solely responsible for handling wildfires everywhere across the US, Kolden also included a sixth “State/Other” category that includes state agencies, other federal agencies (such as the Department of Energy), and other organizations that were listed in the NIFIC archive as having performed prescribed burns from 1998 to 2018.

To determine the extent of prescribed burning performed by each organization, Kolden tallied up both the total area (calculated as hectares per year) that each organization burned, as well as what these burns meant in terms of the over-all geographic area the organization oversees.

So, for instance, at first glance the US Forest Service (USFS) appears to be a lead agency as far as prescribed burning goes. That is if one examines just the total area of prescribed burns USFS performed from 1998 to 2018, roughly 3,353 hectares (13 sq. miles) per year, according to the archives.

However, if we look at the USFS prescribed burns in terms of the total area the federal agency manages, the story changes dramatically. As a calculation of percent of total area, USFS performed prescribed burns on less than 1% of its total managed lands. This, Kolden points out, has real relevancy for the Western US, which has more of its lands held in federal trust (Forest Service and otherwise) than any other region in the US. It also leads to the next fascinating piece of Kolden’s analysis: where in the US prescribed burns have be conducted in recent years and by which organizations.

Information in the NIFIC archive is organized by region. Unless you’re a fan of Stephen Pyne (he’s a famous American historian of fire), you might not suspect which US region has been conducting the most prescribed burns. Okay, we won’t beat around the bush fire, the vast majority of prescribed burns from 1998 to 2018 occurred in the Sothern US, according to Kolden’s analysis.

Over the 21-year study period, the Southern US burned on average 60,480 ha (over 230 sq. miles) per year. In fact, as Kolden notes, not only has the Southern US consistently performed prescribed burns over the years and increased its prescribed burning in recent years, if one were to excise the relevant Southern data from the NIFIC archive, the trend in prescribed burns would be more or less flat. The Southern US is not only a leader in prescribed burns, it’s also a clear outlier. No other US region has prescribe-burned—forgive the clunky conjugation—as much land as the Southern US by a long shot.

What’s more interesting still is that the majority of these prescribed burns are being performed by category six, “State/Other” organizations, meaning this work is being mostly done by non-Federal agencies.

One possible reason for this, Kolden points out (and Pyne fans will know), has to do with the history of burning in the South. The Southern US has a long history of performing prescribed burns, one that reaches at least to the start of the 20th century if not beyond. Kolden suggests that this has led to a cultural tolerance for prescribed burns in the region, one that the American West does not share.

What’s telling is that this regional tolerance also extends to federal agencies doing their own prescribed burns in the South. In fact, much of the US Forest Services’ annual prescribed burning has taken place in South rather than in the West, where the vast majority of USFS land actually is.

However, one should not draw the conclusion that all federal agencies haven’t increased their prescribed burning activities over the years. There is one that stands out, according to Kolden’s analysis: the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

The BIA burned about 7% of its land area every year over the 21-year period Kolden examined. Kolden suggests that the BIA has increased its prescribed burning activities in response to the concerns of American Indian communities.

If the Southern US has a long history with the use of prescribed burns, then American Indian communities have a really long history with the use of prescribed burns. This history, embedded in multiple cultures, has long been used to manage cultural resources, such as oak trees and the acorns they produce, and to prevent wildfires. Recently, American Indian communities, as Kolden points out, have been working to reestablish the legal recognition of their sovereign treaty rights. Bringing back prescribed burns to their traditional lands has been a key piece of this effort.

So, what are the potential reasons prescribed burns aren’t, well…spreading like wildfire in the Western US?

Kolden answers this question by first noting the obvious differences between the landscapes of the Southern US and the Western US. The Western US has much rougher, more complex and inaccessible terrain than the South. The West generally has a shorter calendar period during which burning is advisable. And then there’s the lack of prescribed burning in the West, which has led to a reluctance to perform them in the region. Basically, the West’s fire deficit has led to a buildup of fuels that has led to a reluctance on the part of federal and state agencies to perform prescribed burns because increased fuel loads increases the likelihood that intentionally set burns could get out of hand. This concern is a real one.

In 2000, what started as a prescribed burn at Bandolier National Monument near Los Alamos National Laboratories escaped its would-be handlers, becoming the Cerro Grande Fire, which burned some 73 square miles, destroyed 280 homes as well as multiple government buildings, and effectively shut down nearly all federal prescribed burns for months.

This concern about prescribed burns turning into wildfires has taken hold among the general public in the West and is one of the major reasons the region has not performed more prescribed burns, according to Kolden. Another public concern is air quality. Smoke from prescribed fires can produce unhealthy air quality.

These concerns, Kolden contends, illustrate a clear “socio-cultural divide” between the South and the West around prescribed burns.

According to Kolden, the West needs a “culture shift” in its perceptions of prescribed burning, including its tolerance of smoke from burns, and how it assesses the risk of limiting fuel loads against the risk of igniting wildfires from prescribed burns.

“Without such a shift,” writes Kolden, “more catastrophic wildfire disasters are inevitable.”

OSU_icon_key_01Key Term: Prescribed burn—an intentionally set, controlled fire used to mitigate the risk of wildfires through the reduction of fuel loads and the restoring of ecosystems.

OSU_icon_pencil_Black RotatedCitation: Kolden, Crystal A. “We’re Not Doing Enough Prescribed Fire in the Western United States to Mitigate Wildfire Risk.” Fire 2, no. 2 (2019): 30.  https://doi.org/10.3390/fire2020030.

OSU_icon_graph_01Featured Image: “Successful controlled burn at Portsmouth,”December 18, 2011. Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Government WorksU.S. Government Works.)


Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writerOther posts by this Author. 

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