by Karin Umfrey
Prescribed fire is a form of planned and controlled burning to manage landscapes by reducing the likelihood of catastrophic burning. Long before becoming a part of government forest management practices, cultural burning, the intentional use of fire “to achieve [Indigenous] cultural objectives,” was practiced for millennia. (Kira M Hoffman et al, Western Canada’s New Wildfire Reality Needs a New Approach to Fire Management, 2022 Environ. Res. Lett. 17 061001.) Cultural burning is an effective tool in forest management practices because it routinely reduces the amount of fuel available to contribute to the intensity of fires. Likewise, if used more often, prescribed burning is a wildfire mitigation strategy that will improve the outcome in our landscapes and ultimately lead to better health outcomes for the public and for those workers whose outdoor labor leaves them most exposed to wildfire smoke.
Wildfires can get out of control because of the “accumulation of large amounts of dry and dead fuel — a direct result of over 100 years of” a zero fire approach. Id. Fire is a natural and ultimately inevitable part of the ecosystem- “the consequence of attempting to exclude fire is increasing the occurrence of extreme wildfires, which can be resolved by returning” to prescribed fires. Id. The Indigenous practice of cultural burning has historically been effective and successful as a wildfire mitigation strategy. Indigenous communities who want to lead and engage in wildfire management that aligns with their cultural and ecological values should be given their rightful power back to do so. Our local and state governments need to learn from these practices by incorporating prescribed burning as a practice.
Just this summer, the Canadian wildfires raged completely out of control. In June, the wildfires pushed heavy and hazardous smoke into the Northeast, which has continued to linger, affecting the air quality of many in the United States for weeks on end. The smoke started to clear up, but as of July 17, hazardous smoke has returned. This smoke has “blott[ed] out blue sky and sun … blanketing dozens of cities with unhealthy air that triggered warnings to limit the time spent outdoors.” Christine Hauser and Claire Moses, Smoke Pollution From Canadian Wildfires Blankets U.S. Cities, Again, NY Times (July 17, 2023) https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/17/us/wildfire-smoke-canada-ny-air-quality.html
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and LandScan (a population database), this Monday, July 17, about 73 million people in 29 states have been affected by the shifting, migrating smoke from the Canadian wildfires. Id.
The West Coast is relatively unplagued by fire–there are a few smaller ones; it’s rare that we’re completely without them — but climate change has not stopped. Extreme heat events continue, and as long as California’s government fails to act judiciously, the specter of the next out-of-control fire looms large.
Wildfire containment, more or less by definition, is impractical and, too often, impossible. The reduction of fuel facilitated by prescribed fire has been demonstrated to be perhaps the most effective way to ensure containment of future fires. (Robinson Meyer, The Simple Reason That Humans Can’t Control Wildfires, The Atlantic [Nov. 13, 2018] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/11/california-wildfire-why-humans- cant-control-them/575740.)
This year Worksafe supports SB 310 (Dodd) Cultural Burning. SB 310 is sponsored by the Karuk Tribe and helps restore sovereignty to California Tribes by allowing federally recognized tribes to use beneficial fire for cultural purposes without applying for permits from California agencies.
The use of prescribed fire and cultural burning — sometimes collectively called “good” or “beneficial” fire — is a key component of wildfire risk management in California. These projects reduce hazardous fuels, help restore ecological and cultural values, and make our communities safer and our ecosystems more resilient to wildfire. However, lack of liability insurance for practitioners has been a major barrier to increasing the use of prescribed fire, even as firefighters, fire scientists, at-risk communities, and state, federal, and tribal leaders call for more. (There are currently funds being established to address this concern).
We need as many different kinds of organizations as possible working together on this topic. As wildfires continue to rage out of control, there is a vast public misunderstanding and lack of awareness on the effectiveness of prescribed burns for improving wildfire outcomes.
(If you’re interested in signing onto SB 310, or brainstorming on education and outreach on wildfire mitigation, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and indicate your topic of interest in the subject line of the email.)