California’s forest fire paradox: More fires now to prevent mega-fires later

November 23, 2023

Understanding the forest fire conundrum

Despite the devastating impact of wildfires in California, recent research suggests that the state’s forests might actually benefit from more, controlled forest fires.

This conclusion emerges from a century-long legacy of wildfire suppression that deprived these forests of low-intensity fires, once common due to natural causes like lightning and Indigenous practices.

This historical approach has altered the natural fire regime, setting the stage for more catastrophic wildfires.

The scientific evidence supporting controlled burns

Recent studies have shed light on the benefits of increasing forest fires, albeit controlled ones, to reduce the likelihood of intense wildfires later.

Scientists have utilized two decades of satellite data, spanning from 2000 to 2021, to compare areas affected by low-intensity fires with those untouched by fire.

Their findings are significant: in coniferous forests, a low-intensity fire reduced the chances of a high-intensity fire occurring later by 64%.

Michael Wara, a co-author of the study from Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, emphasizes the considerable long-term benefits of this risk reduction strategy.

However, the protective effect of these fires diminishes after six years, indicating the need for regular controlled burning.

Barriers to implementing controlled burns

While the scientific community recognizes the importance of prescribed burns, a host of challenges impedes their widespread implementation.

John Williams from the University of California Davis’s Department of Environmental Science and Policy points out several barriers, including the ingrained culture of fire suppression in forest management, inadequate funding, lack of collaboration with Indigenous groups, and bureaucratic disincentives for starting fires.

Consequently, the actual area treated with prescribed burns in California and Oregon falls drastically short of the recommended extent.

FSJA Comment

The emerging consensus among scientists and policymakers underscores a pivotal shift in our approach to forest management, especially in the context of climate change and increased wildfire risks.

The concept of using fire as a tool, not just a threat, represents a return to more traditional land management practices, harmonizing modern science with indigenous wisdom.

The findings from California offer a blueprint for forest management globally, where controlled burns could play a critical role in mitigating the risks of catastrophic fires.

However, the transition from theory to practice faces considerable hurdles.

Overcoming these barriers, primarily cultural and bureaucratic, is as crucial as the scientific understanding itself.

The challenge lies in aligning scientific recommendations with policy actions and public acceptance, to foster an environment where controlled burns are not just a scientific recommendation but a practical reality.

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