In many wildland areas, smoke can often be seen throughout the winter. More than likely, this is not due to uncontrolled wildfire, but rather prescribed fire, which are a fuels reduction method used when the weather is less conducive to catastrophic burns, allowing firefighters and crews to prepare for when wildfire season picks up again.
Prescribed fire is one of the most effective mitigation concepts for reducing the outbreak and spread of wildfires. SmokeyBear.com defines prescribed fire as the controlled application of fire by a team of fire experts under specified weather conditions that help restore health to fire-adapted environments. Prescribed fires can sometimes be confused with “backfiring” or “controlled burning” which typically refer to different types of prescribed and controlled fires. In many cases by safely reducing excessive amounts of brush, shrubs, and trees, prescribed burning can help reduce the catastrophic damage of wildfire on wildlands and surrounding communities. In the Golden Hills photo above, the piling and burning of excess fuel was intended to make the fire road safer (this technique is sometimes called road brushing) and also to provide a fire break between Hwy 58 (a major thoroughfare) and the densely populated Golden Hills community.
Update on the Fuel Reduction Situation
A recent article by NBC News highlights prescribed burns to help reduce the risk of large wildfires from the 100 year buildup of fuels and especially the tree death epidemic across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. An estimated 129 million dead trees have left an astronomical fuel load across the state (Read our past article about tree mortality to learn more here), and will continue to feed massive fire with dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior when the hot and dry conditions return in the summer. Last year’s devastation in both Northern California and in Ventura and Santa Barbara spurred California to its greatest wildfire safety reforms in a long time. NBC News reminded us that Gov. Jerry Brown signed a series of bills in September including 1 billion dollars over five years to reduce fuels in wildland areas. Fuel reduction mostly consists of prescribed fires, mechanical thinning and removing of trees, and homeowner education programs to systematically help reduce fuel loads enough to limit the risk of wildland fires spreading to nearby communities. Despite the efforts, the fire season of 2018 brought, in consecutive years, new records for the largest and most devastating fires to the state. Experts say it will take decades to restore health and balance to forests and the WUI in California and the West.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2016 and was updated in January and December 2018