The only way to save the west is to burn the west

The President has complained on various occasions that western states, California in particular, aren’t managing their forests properly, leading to the spates of destructive wildfires breaking out. There’s probably some blame to be shared at every level, but it seems fair to say that the federal government (at the direction of the President) could be doing more. The LA Times highlights a new study this week showing that controlled burns in western states haven’t been conducted at the rates required to minimize the chances of such massive blazes. There’s money available to do it, but the agencies responsible for such decisions aren’t spending nearly all of it to get the job done.

Despite years of scientific research pointing to prescribed or “controlled” burns as a successful method of clearing brush and restoring ecosystems, intentional fire-setting by federal agencies has declined in much of the West over the last 20 years, the study found.

“This suggests that the best available science is not being adopted into management practices, thereby further compounding the fire deficit in the western U.S. and the potential for more wildfire disasters,” the report warns.

Published Wednesday in the journal Fire, the study by University of Idaho researcher Crystal Kolden analyzed prescribed burns set between 1998 and 2018 by a handful of federal land management agencies, most of which are under the Interior Department, as well as state fire agencies.

Over this period, the amount of land burned each year nationwide increased by about 5%. But almost all of that uptick took place in the southeastern U.S.

So we’re doing more controlled burns in the southeast (where perhaps not coincidentally we have far fewer wildfires), but fewer out west in the places that continue to go up in flames. Who is responsible for these decisions and what’s holding them back?

Going by the conclusions in this report, the first question is a bit complicated to answer. At the federal level, there are a number of organizations that receive funding specifically to manage controlled burns. These include the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and even the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There are other agencies at the state and even county level in most states who are authorized to do such work. And yet it’s not getting done out west at anywhere near the required volume.

As to why the western states are reportedly far more skeptical about setting controlled fires, that’s complicated as well. The vast open expanses of forest lands out there are nearly inaccessible in many cases, making management a logistical challenge. There are also very valid concerns over liability. Nobody wants to be the person responsible for starting a burn that gets out of control when the wind shifts and winds up turning into another Camp Fire situation. There would be endless lawsuits and if God forbid, anyone died, that would be the end of someone’s career.

But going by the conclusions in this report, such controlled burns can be done safely enough if we’re smart about it. You need to do it at the right time of year have sufficient containment resources in place. The other choice is to do what we’re doing now and just let increasingly large wildfires take care of the job for us. That’s how Mother Nature took care of it before we arrived and it’s a proven winner. But it’s also rather messy and occasionally deadly, so perhaps the controlled burns are worth the risk.