In early May, the flames began to spread through a pine forest, devouring a dense carpet of leaves and undergrowth. Burn was the definition of a “good fire”, intentionally lit to clear vegetation that could fuel future hells.
This happened in the nation’s leading controlled burn state: Florida.
As western states grapple with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, some are turning to the southeastern United States, where prescribed burning is prevalent thanks to policies put in place decades ago. From 1998 to 2018, 70% of all controlled burns in the country took place in the southeast.
Although a continent apart, both regions have a similar need for fire. For thousands of years, forests and woodlands have been regularly burned, both triggered by lightning and used by Native American tribes, preventing the build-up of flammable plants. Without fire, the landscape is subject to intense and potentially devastating forest fires.
Despite this risk, Western states have struggled to expand the use of controlled burns. This month, the US Forest Service suspended them due to numerous fires that were burning in record drought conditions.
Now, several western states are preparing to adopt the fire policies initiated by Florida and other southern states. as a cover against the future. They understand training issues for those responsible for burns and offer them liability protection. The biggest challenge is changing the culture around the fire, so residents know that tolerating a little smoke from good fires can help stop the destructive fires that cloud the air for weeks.
“We have this generational gap in knowledge of fires in the western United States that we are trying to rebuild now,” says Lenya Quinn-Davison, fire advisor for the University of California cooperative extension. “But Florida and the Southeast still have it.”
How the bonfire became a routine in the South
Low-intensity fires were once common in the United States. Tribes would burn forests to encourage plant growth, improve food and weaving resources, and attract game. In the fast growing forests of the southeast, fires occurred every few years.
After colonization, some settlers in the Southeast adopted similar burning practices on lands taken from tribes. But in the early 1900s, the era of fire suppression began. The burning was considered a threat to the timber harvest. The US Forest Service has an edict in place to put out all fires. On billboards and in advertisements, Smokey Bear spread the idea that fire was the enemy.
In the 1960s, land managers realized that many landscapes were littered with brush, grasses and small trees. In the southeast, where most of the land is privately owned, some residents have continued with controlled burning and want the practice to expand.
“We’ve been here since the 1800s, my family has been,” said Frank Riley, executive director of the Chestatee Chattahoochee Conservation and Resource Development Commission, a non-profit organization in Demorest, Ga. who works on land management. “They would light a fire and let it burn until it went out, wherever it stopped. Because it kept the forest open. The deer had something to eat. The cattle had to eat. the time had something to eat because it was burning all the brambles and bushes. “
In 1990, Florida passed a law to encourage prescribed burns, recognizing that the state would lose significant biodiversity without it. After firestorms in 1998 that burned nearly 500,000 acres, the law was toughened.
Florida has implemented a certification system for burn managers, also known as “burn leaders,” requiring applicants to take special training in weather and landscape conditions for a safe burn. With this certification, burners are protected from liability claims in the rare event that a burn gets out of hand, unless it is shown that there has been “gross negligence” on their part.
A total of 11 southern states have burn manager certification programs. As a result, controlled burning has become part of the social fabric.
“The city embraces the natural areas that surround it,” says Morgan Varner, director of fire research at Tall Timbers, a land research and conservation station in Tallahassee, Florida. “They love green spaces and they associate that with the fires that take place. So there is a bit of social license that needs to be reborn or restored in the rest of the country that really isn’t there.”
Varner says many private landowners burn every two years, usually in the spring. As long as the weather and wind conditions are safe, fire managers can obtain a required permit within 15 minutes over the phone. In western states, planning for a prescribed burn can take weeks or even months in some locations.
“People don’t just accept him there, they are looking for him,” says Crystal Kolden, a fire specialist at the University of California at Merced. “They demand it because they know how important it is for maintaining these landscapes.”
Western states have a long way to go
Florida has conducted prescribed burns on more than 1.6 million acres so far this year. California burned only about 35,000 acres. The state is 2.5 times the size of Florida.
California recently signed an agreement with the US Forest Service to reduce vegetation on 1 million acres of public land, but the goal is still out of reach. Experts believe tens of millions of acres need to be treated statewide, but a lack of funding, staff and political will has limited work on public lands.
About half of California is privately owned, but landowners have received little support from public agencies to start fires on their property. Permits issued by fire agencies and air quality regulators can be difficult to obtain.
“It’s very important that we have private landowners and community groups involved as they manage and care for the land around our cities and communities,” Quinn-Davidson said. “They are essential in this larger vision of California living with fire.”
While federal and state firefighters are protected from liability claims for ordering the burn, most fire chiefs on private land are unable to obtain insurance to protect themselves.
“When I go out and burn I have no liability protection,” Quinn-Davidson says. “I take full responsibility for these projects. And most of the time we do these projects for the public good, to reduce the risk of forest fires, to restore habitat, for cultural reasons.”
California lawmakers are currently considering a bill that would prevent burners from being charged for firefighting resources that would be needed if a burn were to escape.
An earlier version of the bill would have copied the laws of the southeastern states, also protecting burners from liability, unless they were grossly negligent. Following opposition from the insurance industry, this provision was removed. Although rare, some prescribed burns have escaped and burned in developed areas, threatening or even destroying homes.
Other western states are starting to move in the same direction. In March, New Mexico passed a law limiting liability for prescribed burns and establishing a training program for burn leaders. Oregon passed a bill in July that also establishes its first Burn Boss certification, as well as a bill that directs agencies to investigate liability issues.
At the federal level, several Democratic senators hope to help states with additional funding from the National Prescribed Fires Act of 2021, which would provide $ 300 million for federal agency fires, if passed.
While Western states still have a long way to go, some experts say the resurgence of fires has already started, led by Native American communities and tribes.
In May, Quinn-Davidson helped run the first burn manager certification course in California. Fourteen local groups, known as prescribed burn associations, have recently formed to help private landowners conduct burns statewide.
“California is, in some ways, in the Dark Ages with prescribed burn,” says Varner. “But they’re in a time now, a special time, where they can go from number 49 in the country to number 1.”