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The Crucial Role of Controlled Burns in Wildfire Prevention

Written 05.17.23 | By Dominique A.

As wildfires grow exponentially year after year, it is essential to understand the methods for reducing wildfire activity, especially during peak summer months - threatening our communities and creating unhealthy air quality. These methods are most commonly known as controlled burns or prescribed burns. These are scheduled fires performed by trained forestry technicians that help maintain forest health by removing natural fuels that can ignite a fire, such as dead grass, dead trees, and thick undergrowth, to prevent the occurrence of fatal wildfires.

Before a controlled burn can occur, there are some key factors to consider preventing a fire from getting out of hand. First, the wind and weather conditions are vital in keeping our communities safe. For example, if there's a controlled burn scheduled during high temperatures with little to no humidity, there's a chance the fire can spread out of control since there isn't enough moisture to extinguish it. Typically, there are goals set for the expectations of the burn called a burn plan, which would consist of mapping out the size of the fire, what it's expected to burn, and, most importantly, what the weather conditions are like during the burn. During this time, forestry technicians will notify the community of their scheduled burn and their plans to manage the smoke in the area. The best time of year to burn is typically during spring or fall when there is less chance of fire activity.

The History of Controlled Burns

The history of controlled burns was primarily practiced annually in the southeastern region of the United States by Native tribes who learned from early European settlers. During the 19th century, controlled burns became common among farmers to enhance forage opportunities for their free-range cattle and improve visibility. Before human actions caused wildfires, researchers believed that lightning was the primary cause in North America. Compared to human-caused fires, those caused by lightning are typically smaller, dispersed throughout, and usually followed by rain.

In the 1920s, naturalist and conservationist Herbert L. Stoddard recorded the importance of controlled burns to preserve the habitats of bobwhite quails specifically. He later advocated for wildlife management, especially light winter burning for certain forest types like longleaf pine. Initially, public service agencies and foresters disagreed with controlled burning since this was during the rise of commercial logging. Due to their limited understanding of the importance of fire, they believed all fire was terrible and encouraged education to the public on the importance of fire suppression through the birth of the character Smokey Bear in 1944. In the 1960s, biologists later understood the importance of fire as an ecological tool for the restoration and health of vegetation to thrive. By the 1970s, this research allowed the Forest Service to accept that fire can be used as a tool where necessary, starting with allowing natural-caused fires to burn in select forest areas. That was until the 1988 Yellowstone Fire entered the new challenge of fire suppression efforts amid urban sprawls in areas prone to wildfires or wildland-urban interface (WUI).

Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center; Forest Fire lookout circa 1910s-1960s
Courtesy of National Interagency Fire Center; Forest Fire lookout circa the 1910s-1960s

The Origins of Wildland Firefighters

During the 1800s, conservationists believed that early forest fires would threaten the future commercial timber supplies, so in 1891, they asked the U.S. government to help protect these forests. Once the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905, they managed these forests, now known as National Forests. In 1910, a large fire across Washington, Montana, and Idaho burned 3 million acres in just two days. The Forest Service believed this event could have been prevented if there were enough people and equipment to help fight it. Instead, this tragedy proved to the National Forest Service and Congress that fire suppression was necessary to prevent wildfires, including controlled burns. They were against this practice even though farmers and ranchers tried to explain its importance for land conditions.

In addition to educating the public on fire suppression after the wildfire tragedy known as the "Big Blowup," new strategies were created by the Forest Service to help support this goal, such as lookout towers, ranger stations, new communication strategies, and network of roads to help with fire prevention. A tough fire season during the 1930s created a Civilian Conservation Corps by the federal government putting men to work fighting fires and creating fire breaks developing the rise of what we now call wildland firefighters. And in 1935, the Forest Service began the 10 am policy, which meant that every reported fire needed to be suppressed by 10 am after it was initially documented. In addition to the fire prevention plan, new technology and roles were created, like airplanes, medicines, fire suppression chemicals, and smokejumpers to help with these efforts.

Wildland Fire Awareness Month

May is Wildfire Awareness Month. During this time of the year, wildfires become more prevalent as the air gets drier and the temperature begins to heat up for summer, so it is essential to be prepared. According to Washington DNR, studies show that 80% of homes are lost in wildfires due to a lack of brush clearing or creating enough defensible space around your home.

Here are a few steps to help you prepare this season:

  • Clear the perimeter of your home from natural fuels that can potentially ignite a fire, like removing dead leaves, keeping powerlines cleared from trees, and mowing the grass regularly.
  • Include fire-resistant plants in your landscaping to reduce your exposure. Some plant examples are lavender, honeysuckle, and chives. The complete list of FR plants can be found here.   
  • Know the outdoor burning rules for your local area.
  • Create an evacuation plan.