We’re Paying the Price for Refusing Controlled Burns

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Power lines framed by flames as the Dixie Fire grows in Plumas National Forest, Calif., July 15, 2021.
(David Swanson/Reuters)

Terribly large and destructive wildfires in the West are now a summer ritual — and with it, the insistence that the fires are further evidence of climate change.

But the fires are also a consequence of bad forest management policies – specifically, the longtime erroneous belief that humans should never clear out flammable underbrush and other potential fire fuel, and that controlled burns are destructive and always inherently bad.

Thankfully, the longstanding conventional wisdom is rapidly eroding. Oregon’s Democratic governor Kate Brown said on Jake Tapper’s program yesterday, “it’s incredibly important, with climate change, that we get into these forests and start doing the thinning and harvest and prescriptive burning, so that we can create healthier landscapes, landscapes that are more resilient to wildfire.”

Some left-of-center publications that focus more specifically on environmental issues emphasize that deliberate policy choices in forest management can mitigate the effects of fires.

“We have overwhelming evidence that when we treat forests by removing fuels, it generally — not always, you can never say always, but generally — moderates fire behavior,” said Maureen Kennedy, a professor who studies forest fires at the University of Washington, Tacoma.

…Forest treatments like this work by spacing out fuel, Kennedy said. When there is a continuous ladder of branches and small trees from the ground to the canopy, it allows fire to rise up into the treetops. And when trees are close together, fires move from one to the next, growing hotter and hotter. Trees that are farther apart, however,  encourage fires to fall to the ground. It makes sense, intuitively, but it’s still surprising when a wall of flame settles down and begins creeping across the forest floor, Kennedy said.

“No matter how many times I study it, no matter how much sense it makes in theory, it’s still amazing,” she said. “When you look at photographs from the Wallow Fire, that landscape was nuked, it was burning so hot that there were only blackened sticks that used to be trees left behind. Then, as you move into the treatment area the trees are brown, and then further in, they are green.”

The financial cost of controlled burns is actually surprisingly inexpensive; “in the southeastern U.S., where prescribed fire is a common management practice, the average cost is about $32 per acre.” One estimate of the 2018 California wildfires put the economic cost at more than $148 billion.

But finding a potential solution and implementing it are two different tasks. It’s difficult to treat every corner of a forest that is at risk of a fire. And unfortunately, almost all of the legal and political incentives are for local, state, and national officials to not perform any controlled burns. In other words, one of the reasons our forests in the West are so flammable and full of kindling is that the people who claim to love those forests the most won’t allow measures to prevent the worst-case forest-fire scenarios.

There is little to no sign that global carbon emissions will decrease anytime soon. We are going to have to learn to adapt to a more carbon-heavy atmosphere.

Cities at risk of flooding would find investments in flood mitigation a much more cost-effective approach than wild-eyed dreams of decarbonization or banning the internal-combustion engine. But those approaches are practical, not idealistic – and thus, they get much less attention.