Why are prescribed fires a major tool for preventing forest blazes?

How crews put ‘good fire’ to work in restoring forest health and resilience

Save the Redwoods and partners conducted a successful prescribed fire in February 2020 at San Vicente Redwoods, where the League holds a conservation easement. When surveying damage from the CZU Lightning Complex fire that burned through the Santa Cruz Mountains property later that year, Anthony Castaños was amazed. “If you walk down the prescribed burning boundary line, you look to the right, and everything is green on top of the trees,” says Castaños, the League’s land stewardship manager. “And then you look to the left, where the area was untreated, and all the trees are burned head to toe, like black sticks standing. The prescribed burn also prevented the fire from jumping across the street into the adjacent community.”

More than 4 million acres burned in California during the 2020 wildfires, the most in recorded history; the 2021 fire season was on track to match it as of press time. Fueled by more than 100 years of fire exclusion and climate change, severe wildfires took a tragic toll on some communities and redwood parks. But historically, about 4.5 million acres burned in California annually, ignited either by lightning or Indigenous people. Fire is natural, and restoring good fire across the state is essential, experts say.

Prescribed fire is one of the key tools for restoring coast redwood and giant sequoia forests’ natural fire resilience. Also called a controlled burn, it is a carefully planned and executed fire managed by a team of experts to achieve stewardship goals and improve fire resiliency in the forest, including reducing unnatural buildups of fuel (flammable plant matter), improving habitat for native species, returning nutrients to the soil, and more.

“My hope for prescribed burning is that we get comfortable with fire, have lots of people safely certified to use it, and engage respectfully with tribes to learn from and do fire with them,” says fire ecologist Joanna Nelson, the League’s director of science and conservation planning.

For millennia, California Native peoples have used fire as a tool for managing natural resources, conducting cultural burns on a wide range of habitats. “The burn itself is a ceremony,” says Chairman Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. A cultural burn requires rigorous surveys and preparation and includes cultural elements that “[return] sacredness to the practices of taking care of Mother Earth,” Lopez says.

Prescribed fire in action
The League, the tribal organization Amah Mutsun Land Trust, and other partners conduct a prescribed fire at San Vicente Redwoods in March 2020, burning unnaturally large buildups of fuels. Photo by Joanna Nelson and Amah Mutsun Land Trust.

Implementing a Burn

Like a cultural burn, a prescribed burn requires extensive planning and protocols. A certified burn boss designs, coordinates, and executes each burn. “Like everything in fire, it’s art, science, and sometimes a little bit of luck,” says seasoned burn boss Ben Jacobs, who has worked with the League for two years.

The burn boss determines the ideal boundaries of the burn unit, then writes a burn plan, which is a general description of how the burn will be ignited and controlled. The plan also includes the prescription—the set of conditions under which the burn can take place. Considerations include weather conditions, fuel moistures, fire personnel, public safety, smoke impacts, and emergency protocols. Because of this meticulous planning, it’s rare for burns to escape project boundaries. Burn crews, consisting of 10 to 20 trained personnel, prepare the unit by manually clearing excess fuel in and around the perimeter to create a fire line.

Before the burn, the burn boss gets clearance from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) and the county Air Pollution Control District. Under the burn boss’ watchful eye, some crew members put fire on the ground with drip torches, and most hold the fire line with hand tools and hoses. The crew first conducts a test burn on a small patch of land to make sure the fire will burn as expected. Then if everything looks good, the burn can begin.

Line between unmanaged and managed with fire
After the CZU Lightning Complex fire burned through San Vicente Redwoods, the trees in the area treated with prescribed fire, right, retained their green leaves, unlike the blackened and bare trees in the untreated area on the left. Photo by Brian Homberger, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County.

Aligning Policy, Personnel, Plans, and Funding

Despite climate change shifting weather patterns and fire seasons, “the conditions align multiple times every single year,” says Jeremy Bailey, The Nature Conservancy’s national prescribed fire director. “The key is having your workforce, your politics, your permit, and your plan all in place.”

In addition to the burn in San Vicente, the League has conducted burns in Southern Humboldt County and the Sierra Nevada, with burn plans in place for its Red Hill giant sequoia and north coast Orick Mill properties.

In 2020 and 2021, the U.S. Forest Service prohibited all prescribed burns during fire season because of the number and scope of wildfires, which spread firefighters thin. Public funding is often another roadblock because prescribed burns can be expensive.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently advanced the movement to expand prescribed fires in the state when he signed a new bill reducing the financial risks for burn bosses. Other legislation, some with major input from the League, aims to make it easier for fire practitioners to get trained. As more government leaders accept prescribed burning as a crucial restoration tool, more fire-friendly policy is possible.

Chairman Lopez has noticed land agencies increasingly trying to work with tribes to implement cultural burns. He is building a network and safety training program so that California tribes can support one another in cultural burns.

Across the nation, there has been an increase in community-based burning and greater acceptance of prescribed burning as an essential tool in the ecosystem restoration toolbox, Bailey says. But much work remains to build a prescribed burning workforce and align public policy with burning goals.

Prescribed fire infographic
Prescribed burn steps adapted partly from Southern Group of State Foresters. Photo by Anthony Castaños.

About the author

Emily Harwitz is a multimedia science journalist and writer whose work focuses on the environment and our connection to it. She loves the outdoors and hopes to tell stories that foster community and wonder.

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