Controlled fires or uncontrolled fires: Which do you prefer?
Which do you prefer, controlled fires or uncontrolled fires?
People living in Australia and California ought to be asking themselves that question.
Every year it seems like there’s another disastrous wildfire in the American West. In 2018, nearly 9 million acres were burned in the US alone. Uncontrolled fires often started accidentally by people, rampage and decimate forests.
For most people, forest fire is synonymous with disaster. But there are some kinds of forest fires that actually benefit the environment.
A controlled burn is a wildfire that people set intentionally for a specific purpose. Well-thought out and well-managed controlled burns can be incredibly beneficial for forest management—in part because they can help stop an out-of-control wildfire. . .
Controlled burns are also used to prevent forest fires. Even before human involvement, natural, low-intensity wildfires occurred every few years to burn up fuel, plant debris, and dead trees, making way for young, healthy trees and vegetation to thrive. That new growth in turn supports forest wildlife. Forest managers are now replicating this natural strategy when appropriate, starting manageable, slow-burning fires to make room for new life that will help keep the forest healthy in the long term.
The Nature Conservancy reports the following about Oregon’s forests:
“Fire has always been a part of Oregon’s landscape. Many plants and animals depend on the recycled nutrients and healthy ecosystems that nature wildfires produce. But after more than a century of suppressing wildfires, our dry forests are overgrown with fuel that causes larger, more intense and severe wildfires.
The science is clear. Controlled—or prescribed—burns combined with ecological thinning are a proven way to restore Oregon’s dry forests. By managing the natural process of fire on the landscape, instead of preventing it, we can improve habitats for native plants and animals and reduce the risk of out-of-control wildfires.”
A January 2020 headline from the Sacramento Bee asks an important question:
From the U.S. Forest Service:
“Fire exclusion practices have resulted in forests being plagued with a variety of problems, including overcrowding resulting from encroachment of species normally eliminated by fire; vulnerability of trees to insects and disease; and inadequate reproduction of fire resistant species. In addition, heavy accumulation of fuel — dead vegetation of forest floors– can cause catastrophic fires, threaten public safety, impair forests and ecosystem health, and degrade air quality.”
So, why aren’t there more controlled burns? The above-cited Sacramento Bee story gives an answer:
Even as fires have ravaged California in recent years — killing dozens and leveling entire neighborhoods — controlled burns haven’t expanded much, researchers said.
To understand what’s stopped prescribed burns, the researchers interviewed legislative aides, state and federal employees, nonprofit leaders, academics and more.
Those interviews revealed an overarching problem, identified by “almost everyone” who was asked: There’s “a risk-averse culture in the shadow of liability laws that place financial and legal responsibility for any prescribed burn that escapes on the burners,” the researchers said.
Landowners are afraid of going bankrupt if a prescribed burn escapes control, the interviewees told researchers. Meanwhile, state and federal workers see little praise for successful controlled burns, and face fears and possible backlash from a risk-averse public, wary of wildfire smoke and mishaps.
The resulting build-up of wildfire fuel is made worse by human misbehavior as a January 2020 report by Newsweek reveals:
“Police in Australia have arrested and charged two dozen people they say deliberately lit blazes during the wildfire season that has so far killed at least 18 people, destroyed thousands of homes and ravaged over 10 million acres of land. New South Wales police said that since the beginning of November , 24 people have been charged over allegedly deliberately lighting fires as officers continue to investigate the role that arson has played in the devastation. Starting a wildfire can result in a jail sentence of up to 21 years. . . Police in the state have also taken legal action against a further 159 people. Among them are 53 people who allegedly failed to comply with a total fire ban and 47 people who allegedly discarded a lit cigarette or match on land.”
As CNN reports, wildfires in Australia could be prevented by using the burning practices that Aboriginal Australians have been using since before white men discovered Australia.
“The fires in Australia have been burning for months, consuming nearly 18 million acres of land, causing thousands to evacuate and killing potentially millions of animals. They’re showing minimal signs of slowing down. The Australian state of New South Wales, where both Sydney and Canberra are located, declared a state of emergency this week, as worsening weather conditions could lead to even greater fire danger. But a 50,000-year-old solution could exist: Aboriginal burning practices.”
CNN cites Australian historian Bill Gammage as saying, “Where the Aboriginal people are in charge, they’re not having big fires. In the south, where white people are in charge, we are having the problems.”
As it turns out, some people would rather have uncontrolled fires than controlled ones, as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported via Facebook in 2019:
Click here to read more about opposition to controlled fires in Australia.