Land managers agree. Policymakers agree. The science is unequivocal. If we don’t get more beneficial fire on the ground in California, we’re going to lose it all to wildfire.

Yet last year, when wildfires scorched more than 4 million acres and killed 33 people, federal and state agencies treated an only 80,000 acres with prescribed burns – 16% of what scientists believe California forestlands need to maintain biodiversity and resilience. 

As summer approaches and worse-than-ever blazes are predicted for the state officially sinking into drought, the urgency to dramatically increase controlled fire has morphed into frustration-fueled dread. Why can’t California set the intentional burns everyone knows are key to restoring biodiversity and fire resilience?

A century of fire suppression and industrial logging has distanced us from natural fire, a keystone ecological process as essential to forests as sunshine and rain. We have severed that critical relationship maintained by Native Americans, who for millennia lit fires to keep forests cleansed of flammable underbrush. 

Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service, the agencies responsible for managing most of the state’s forestland, have institutionalized this disconnect by relying on an ethic that calls for controlling natural resources, including fire. 

Fighting fire is Cal Fire’s major mission, confirmed by renaming the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 1995. The U.S. Forest Service has never rid itself of the century-old mentality that all fires must be suppressed by 10 a.m. the next day. 

As recently as the 1970s, agency officials were arresting Native Americans for setting intentional fires. Their academic counterparts mocked UC Berkeley’s School of Forestry Professor Harold Biswell, who promoted prescribed burning as a management tool, calling him “Burn-Em-Up Biswell.” 

Today both agencies retain unerring allegiance to this control culture despite their public commitment to the benefits of returning natural fire to forest ecosystems. The U.S. Forest Service offers few incentives to district rangers who initiate prescribed burns, instead penalizing them for the less than 1% that escape beyond control lines. These are agencies that reward caution at the expense of innovation – even when science supports it.

One ramification is a reluctance to commit to developing a workforce of trained year-round “burners.” Both the Forest Service and Cal Fire continue to rely on crews trained to fight, not light fires. When a wildfire breaks out, these crews drop their rakes and drip torches for the chainsaws and helicopters that promise overtime pay and macho glory. Even the 2019 Caples prescribed burn, planned for three years as the largest intentional fire in the Sierra Nevada, saw two interagency hotshot crews leave mid-burn for “higher priority” fire assignments. 

Some of these barriers are starting to come down. The Forest Service and Cal Fire have each committed to treat 500,000 acres per year by 2025 with mechanical thinning or controlled burning. Prescribed burns are a fraction of these on-the-ground treatments. Still, Cal Fire’s 30,000-acre target for this year is 10 times the actual prescribed fire acreage accomplished in 2015; it has already burned 11,000 acres. The Forest Service applied intentional fire to nearly 60,000 acres last year and has gradually increased its goals.

Attitudes, too, are changing. When the 1,080-acre Caples Fire escaped the designated area and burned 2,355 additional acres, Eldorado National Forest and regional officials backed the local leadership, calling the escape “a calculated risk” and part of the learning process.


 

Jane Braxton Little, based in the northern Sierra Nevada, is an independent journalist covering science and natural resource issues for publications that include the Atlantic, Audubon, Discover, National Geographic and Scientific American, jblittle@dyerpress.com.

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