Following mass tree die-offs, California steps up controlled burning in forests
Intentionally lighting a forest fire is always risky, says Dave Derby, a forester for Cal Fire based in Magalia. Even under the supervision of trained professionals, a controlled burn can get, well, out of control.
“Any time you light a match,” he said, “you’re taking a chance.”
The technique—also known as prescribed burning—is employed by foresters and firefighters to reduce the woodland fuel load and reduce the chance of catastrophic wildfires.
Despite risks, Cal Fire is rolling out a plan to increase the pace and scale of its prescribed burning operations throughout California—Butte County included.
“Our marching orders are to step it up,” Derby said, “but it’s a tough deal. We can’t light these things off in the middle of summer, and you need a lot of bodies to keep it contained, and the conditions have to be just right….
“We haven’t been able to to do much yet.”
Ironically, prescribed burning is being touted as a potential solution to a variety of problems related to fire suppression—including increasingly intense wildfires and the worst bark beetle epidemic in the state’s recorded history. In the absence of wildfire, many forests have become overstocked. Competing for limited resources, the trees are weakened and insects gain the upper hand.
Since 2010, beetles have killed a conservatively estimated 102 million conifers, mostly in the central and southern Sierra Nevada.
The mass tree die-offs have prompted state officials to take a hard look at forest management practices. Last Thursday (Aug. 25), the final of three public hearings on tree mortality was held at the capitol in Sacramento before the Little Hoover Commission, an independent oversight agency investigating the state’s response to the crisis. The results of the study won’t be released until early next year, but it was clear from the meeting that Cal Fire recognizes the need for more proactive management—i.e., reducing fuels by mechanical thinning and prescribed burns.
Matthew Reischman, Cal Fire’s assistant deputy director of resource protection and improvement, told the commission that, over the last year, the agency has increased the acreage it’s burned with prescribed fires from about 3,000 to 14,000 acres. Moving forward, Cal Fire has identified about 50,000 acres of forest that are ready to burn statewide, but Reischman said the agency would prefer to have 100,000 acres ready.
“We know where we want to burn,” he said. “It’s about having the opportunity and the right conditions.”
Cal Fire in Butte County treated about 75 acres with prescribed fire in fiscal year 2016-17 and plans on ramping that up to 1,000 acres in 2017-18. But, for a number of reasons, that could prove too lofty a goal.
For decades, California has gone to great lengths to fight wildfires with airplanes, fire engines, chemical retardants and heavy machinery. It may not be obvious, then, that fire plays an important role in forest ecology, renewing the landscape and stimulating new growth. Some plants, such as manzanitas, depend on the intense heat of fires to activate seed germination. Likewise, lodgepole pines need fire to open their cones.
But many forested areas in California, including some in Butte County, haven’t been touched by fire in decades, leading to the buildup of woodland fuel. Now, when wildfires do rip through, they are unusually intense—even catastrophic—and Cal Fire cannot afford to let them burn uncontained. Millions of people live close to California’s wildlands.
“Our first mission is keeping people safe,” Derby said.
So, the state is trying to strategically reintroduce fire to the landscape, but the overly dense forests make prescribed burns even riskier.
“It’s hard to find a good place to do it,” he said. “Some of these places have been fire-excluded for so long, it might make your situation worse if you’re not careful.”
The inherent risks are part of why it’s difficult to find landowners outside of agencies like California State Parks that are willing to participate. Most of Butte County’s forestlands are privately owned, Derby said. Through Cal Fire’s Vegetation Management Program, the agency assumes liability from landowners while conducting prescribed burns; it also can issue permits for property owners to do the burning themselves. In the latter scenario, Cal Fire provides guidance and personnel to stand by in case something goes wrong.
However, people often hesitate to change their properties so drastically, Derby said: “It changes the way the landscape looks. When you burn, it’s going to look different for the next 10 years or so until things get green again.”
CalFire often trips over administrative hurdles as well. Prescribed burns need the go-ahead from the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the agency charged with maintaining federal air-quality standards, as well as local air districts.
CARB is trying to smooth out the approval process, said Edie Chang, the agency’s deputy executive officer, during the Little Hoover Commission hearing. The effort involves adopting new smoke-monitoring and weather-modeling technologies to help guide the decisions of local air-quality managers. The trick, she added, is burning more without significantly impacting air pollution and human health.
“We recognize that prescribed burns can improve forest health and result in a net reduction of greenhouse gasses in the long term,” she said. “We are actively looking for ways to increase the burns.”