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 in Golden Hills

A Rx fire (controlled pile burning) I helped ignite in Golden Hills near Tehachapi, CA

Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is one of the most effective mitigation concepts for reducing the outbreak and spread of wildfires. 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. 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. The piling and burning of excess fuel you see in the picture above , makes access to the fire road safer. This is called road brushing.  This fuel removal also provides a fire break between Hwy 58 (a major thoroughfare) and the densely populated Golden Hills community.

The Problem with Wildfire

A State of California article suggests at least 170 million trees have died across the Sierra Nevada Mountains since 2010. An astronomical dead fuel load now litters the mountains across the state (read our past article about tree mortality to learn more here). Continued tree mortality will continue to provide wildfires with extra-ready-to-burn fuels. Fires that burn through these dead timber landscapes show dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior and can be unstoppable.

California’s wildfire problem has prompted fire safety reform, insurer adjustments, department of insurance discounts. All three signal public and private industry reactions to the effects of fires near populated areas. Fuel reduction mostly consists of prescribed fires, mechanical thinning and removing of trees. Homeowner education programs also help to systematically reduce fuel loads to protect communities. 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 December 2018 and was updated in January 2024

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