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Controlled burns prevent California wildfires, study says

Lead author calls for ‘colossal expansion of fuel treatments’

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Smoke from the Maria Fire billows above Santa Paula, Calif.  Experts from Stanford University are calling for more prescribed burns to prevent devastating wildfires in California, pointing to new research that asks why the approach hasn't been pursued more aggressively in the fire-plagued state.
Smoke from the Maria Fire billows above Santa Paula, Calif. Experts from Stanford University are calling for more prescribed burns to prevent devastating wildfires in California, pointing to new research that asks why the approach hasn't been pursued more aggressively in the fire-plagued state. (Associated Press files) Photo Gallery

SAN FRANCISCO — Experts from Stanford University are calling for more prescribed burns to prevent devastating wildfires in California, pointing to new research that asks why the approach hasn’t been pursued more aggressively in the fire-plagued state.

“We need a colossal expansion of fuel treatments,” said Stanford doctoral student Rebecca Miller, the lead author of the paper published Monday in “Nature Sustainability,” in a statement.

Those “fuel treatments” Miller is referring to include prescribed burns (fires intentionally lit in a controlled setting to clear kindling that could fuel future fires) and vegetation thinning (trimming plant growth that lets wildfires climb into the tree canopy), according to the study. Researchers said those treatments are needed on 20 percent of the state’s land area to slow future wildfires.

But even as fires have ravaged California in recent years — killing dozens and leveling entire neighborhoods — controlled burns haven’t expanded much, researchers said.

To understand what’s stopped prescribed burns, the researchers interviewed legislative aides, state and federal employees, nonprofit leaders, academics and more.

Those interviews revealed an overarching problem, identified by “almost everyone” who was asked: There’s “a risk-averse culture in the shadow of liability laws that place financial and legal responsibility for any prescribed burn that escapes on the burners,” the researchers said.

Landowners are afraid of going bankrupt if a prescribed burn escapes control, the interviewees told researchers. Meanwhile, state and federal workers see little praise for successful controlled burns, and face fears and possible backlash from a risk-averse public, wary of wildfire smoke and mishaps.

The Stanford experts suggested those perceptions among the public aren’t accurate.

“Prescribed burns are effective and safe,” study co-author Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, said in a statement. “California needs to remove obstacles to their use so we can avoid more devastating wildfires.”

Researchers lumped the obstacles to prescribed burns in three categories: The first was risk-related barriers, such as public fears and liability concerns. The second group of barriers had to do with resources, including limits in funding, crews and experience. And the third area was regulations, encompassing environmental rules and poor weather that can scuttle planned burns.

Despite the barriers, there has been some progress.

The researchers said California has taken “meaningful steps to make prescribed burning easier,” such as public education programs to improve acceptance of controlled burns and legislation that makes “private landowners who enroll in a certification and training program or take appropriate precautions before burning exempt from financial liability for any prescribed burns that escape”

But limited, incremental improvements won’t be enough to meet the scale of California’s problem, the researchers warned.

“Fundamental shifts in prescribed-burn policies, beyond those currently under consideration, are needed to address wildfires in California and worldwide,” the authors write in the study.

Those interviewed offered suggestions of their own, including more funding for wildfire prevention, instead of primarily funding firefighting once a blaze is raging. Some pointed out that in current emissions figures, wildfire smoke is considered natural emissions while prescribed burns are classified as human-caused — and changing how those emissions are calculated could encourage more prescribed burns, researchers said.

“As catastrophic climate impacts intensify, societies increasingly need to innovate to keep people safe,” co-author Katharine Mach, a professor at the University of Miami, said in a statement. “Much of this innovation is conceptually simple: making sure the full portfolio of responses, prescribed burns and beyond, can be deployed.”

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