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.
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 fires that are started when the weather is less conducive to catastrophic burns, allowing firefighters and crews to prepare for when wildfire season picks up again.
A Rx fire (controlled pile burning) I helped ignite in Golden Hills near Tehachapi, CA
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.
A recent article by UC Berkeley News calls on more prescribed burns to help reduce the risk of large wildfires from the tree death epidemic across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Dead trees in the region have left a huge dead fuel load across the area, and could feed massive fire with dangerous and unpredictable fire behavior when the hot and dry conditions return this summer. Prescribed fires, along with mechanical thinning and removing of trees, help reduce fuel loads enough to limit the risk of wildland fires spreading to nearby communities.
Read our past article about tree mortality to learn more here.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in January 2016 and was updated in January 2018
Not every naturally occurring wildland fire is actively suppressed. Naturally occurring wildland fires are normally caused by lightening strikes in areas with fallen trees and other dry accumulated fuels. Under certain circumstances, some wildland fires will be allowed to actively burn in order to help clear these fuels and promote forest health. When a wildland fire is allowed to burn within a pre-defined area to achieve a resource or protection objective it is referred to as a Fire-Use Wildfire. A fire-use fire is different from a prescribed fire in which firefighters intentionally set fires to achieve similar objectives. In addition, federally mandated guidelines state that every human-caused wildland fire will be suppressed and will not be managed for resource benefits. Additionally, once a wildland fire has been managed for suppression objectives, it may never be managed for resource benefit objectives. In other words, a wildland fire must either be suppressed or used for a resource/protection objective but not both.
The Departments of Interior and Agriculture, together with tribal governments, state governments, and local jurisdictions, have the responsibility for protection and management of natural resources on public and Indian Trust lands in the United States. A wildland use fire is one option available to Federal agencies that have an approved land use plan and need to achieve a resource or protection objective. Contributing factors that help steer a fire managers decision-making process are often incident specific. Location, available resources, predicted weather, topography, air quality, and predicted fire behavior are all factors that contribute to fire management decisions.
If a fire is located in remote, steep, rugged or highly inaccessible terrain and people are not threatened, managing the fire as a wildland use fire to meet a protection objective may be more appropriate and can help avoid putting firefighters in unnecessary danger. A wildland use fire can meet resource objectives like helping to maintain healthy forests by supporting a diverse ecosystem. Some wild plants and trees even need fire in order for their seeds to germinate. A carefully monitored wildland use fire can also help reduce naturally occurring fuels accumulation, which could lead to an even bigger wildfire if left unchecked.
Current Large Fire-Use Wildfires
Empire Fire – Yosemite National Park – 1,797 acres
Young Fire – Six Rivers NF & Siskiyou Wilderness – 2,200 acres