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Prescribed Burning

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Prescribed Burning

It's a promising tool, this idea of prescribed burning to defuel forests and help restore ecosystem health. But it's risky business, too, and smoke clouds public acceptance.


Deep in Oregon's ponderosa paradise on Winema National Forest, my wife Maurine and I had just finished flagging a new interpretive trail as Forest volunteers. As we drove a remote road just east of Crater Lake National Park, we smelled the smoke. Then we saw flames.

We relaxed a bit when we spotted a yellow-shirted, hard-hatted fire crew from the Chemult Ranger district. They were matter-of-factly tending flank and back lines (see illustration, page 16) on a low-intensity ground fire they'd set earlier. It gradually burned through bitterbrush and light woody debris, mimicking the natural understory fires of old and thus protecting a stand of mature ponderosas. The fire was moving ionals throughout the U.S. In other words, the present emerging technology is a lot more parochial (meaning practical) than political - a refreshing thought.

"Honey, your fire has escaped.!"

"There's no guarantee you'll not get a big rip," (see terminology sidebar, page 57) says a Forest Service fire officer on the eastern seaboard.

"When you're messing with fire, there's always a chance one will escape," echoes his counterpart in California's Sierras.

"The fuels are tricky..." adds Ron Meyers, who directs prescribed fires for The Nature Conservancy from his base in Florida.

Such concerns are real.

Paul Tine, acting Forest Service fuels specialist for the sprawling eastern U.S. region, remembers well what he calls "the lowest day I've ever had in my 18-year career." As fire boss on a 40-acre prescribed burn on Minnesota's Superior National Forest in the '80s, he had taken a little time off to attend a fire seminar, leaving his mop-up crew in good hands after about nine days of solid progress. Then he received a call from his wife.

"Honey, your fire has escaped!" she reported. Apparently a rogue wind had come up, and his prescribed burn had suddenly become a 2,000-acre "project fire," to use Forest Service lingo.

On May 5, 1980, a 213-acre slash burn in jackpine on Michigan's Manistee National Forest, fanned by the winds of an unexpected cold front, jumped a major highway, consumed 25,000 acres in one afternoon, took the life of one Forest Service firefighter, and destroyed 44 homes on adjacent private lands.

And early in 1993, a 15,000-acre prescribed fire on New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest was going fine - until 60-mph winds unexpectedly struck a small stand of pinyon pine and juniper, producing a crown fire that caught a burning crew off-guard, killing one member (even though the Buchanan fire was later pronounced an ecological success).

Tales like these are, thank heavens, exceptions in the new prescribed-fire technology. And though the learning curve has shown clearly that such fires can help control fuel overloads while improving wildlife habitat and producing other benefits, such incidents have helped to instill a much needed element in this risky business: a little more humility in the face of superior forces.

The prescribed-fire process also presents an intriguing new ecological challenge. As Stephen Pyne pithily suggests in his insightful book, Fire in America, ". . . to remove fire abruptly may be as serious a cultural and ecological event as to introduce it suddenly."

Today we are capable of doing both efficiently.

On a roll

On the other hand, consider the good news:

The Forest Service's 13-state southern region is tops in the nation for intentionally torching its forests. According to Marc Rounsville, prescribed-fire specialist headquartered in Atlanta, "We're burning approximately 550,000 acres a year - more than all the other [Forest Service] regions combined."

The national forests in Mississippi are the best "producers" in the region, with 135,000 acres burned annually.

Rounsville cites "fuel-hazard reduction" (generally meaning understory burning) as the reason for most of the activity, which takes place in a pine forest area where intentional burning has been around for decades. He also quickly ticks off habitat benefits to wild turkeys, quail, whitetail deer, and swamp bears. Fortunately, the humidity in his region quickly degrades ground fuels, increasing their moisture levels and lessening the chance of a big-time "blowout" like you might see in the West.

Hard against the Atlantic on the region's Francis Marion National Forest, District Ranger Glen Stapleton adds, "We tell people that prescribed fire is the single most important forest-management tool we have." He then cites 15,000 to 20,000 acres a year burned on his 120,000-acre coastal-plain district.

Stapleton's forest is still recovering from Hurricane Hugo (a billion board-feet of timber downed in just a few hours in 1989), but the ranger is focused not only on rehab efforts from that disaster but also on what prescribed fire can do for his longleaf pine ecosystem, which includes the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. His news is good.

Some additional prescribed-fire success stories from across the country:

* Kootenai National Forest, Montana: Ron Hvizdak, fire-management officer on the Rexford Ranger District, reports, "We're burning maybe 15,000 to 20,000 acres a year, but this forest burned 50,000 acres naturally before fire suppression." He also reports good chemistry between his fire folks and the community on prescribed burns: help from local volunteer firefighters, field trips by a high-school biology class, and locals who now understand why the process is desirable and accept it.

* Angeles National Forest, California: A prescribed maintenance burn on a firebreak just east of Altadena in the San Gabriel foothills played a major role in slowing the westerly movement of the disastrous Kinneloa fire near Pasadena, one of many that ravaged Southern California in late 1993. The scenario illustrates the benefit of prescribed fire in protecting homes during an urban interface wildfire event, claims fire-management officer Rich Hawkins.

* Boise National Forest, Idaho: The 33,000-acre Star Gulch fire near Idaho City last summer stopped in its tracks when it reached the so-called "Cottonwood natural fuels prescribed fire," ignited by Forest Service crews in the spring of 1994. "It looked like 75 percent of the green forest was still there - everything else was char," reported deputy fire-management officer Terry Teeter after a helicopter recon flight.

That national forest has now logged two of the nation's most compelling examples of how prescribed burns can effectively thwart later wildfires. A similar dramatic event on the Boise occurred several years ago at Tiger Creek, where a crowning wildfire stopped dead in its tracks upon reaching an earlier prescribed burn (see "The Boise Quickstep," American Forests, January/February 1993).

* Wenatchee National Forest, Washington: Assistant fire-management officer Michelle Ellis reports that previous prescribed burns helped to protect a number of homes from last summer's devastating Tyee Creek incident, a lightning-caused blaze that burned 140,000 acres east of the Cascades.

* Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky: Fire managers this year activated their Incident Command team, normally used for fire suppression, to conduct a major prescribed-fire effort for defueling purposes. At press time the team had completed most of the targeted 8,000 acres, the largest such burn in the forest's history.

Grandstand of the Sierras

The examples are convincing. But when you contrast them to total acreages under forest management - perhaps a million or more acres on a given national forest - you realize there's a lot more progress to be made.

"At our current [prescribed burning] pace, I feel we're treating about one-tenth the acres that were burned in 1900 through the natural process," says Dave Bunnell, who coordinates the Forest Service's prescribed-fire program from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. I personally feel that figure might be low.

Still, there's hope. California's Sierra Nevada mountains are probably the nation's first large eco-region where fire is being encouraged to regain its traditional role - that is, burning regularly in low-intensity mode rather than in intense conflagrations that create ash-black eco-disasters.

Like a huge grandstand reaching skyward, the Sierras rise gradually eastward from the state's Central Valley - first as nut-brown grassy foothills, then as chaparral and manzanita brushlands in wild canyons, then as sprawling mixed-conifer forestlands of true nobility. Then John Muir's 500-mile-long "range of light" attains pinnacle and peak status on the "back row" of the grandstand, leaves forests and their fuels behind, then plummets to the Nevada desert below.

The southern and central parts of the range are a great place to experiment with prescribed fire, because predictable westerly winds from the Pacific will eventually lead most forest fires to solid, fireproof granite - your ultimate firebreak, with few towns or ranches in harm's way.

Probing this wonderland with an eye toward prescribed fire can stir the soul of a fire-conversant observer:

* On Sequoia National Forest at the southern end of the range, Bob Rogers reports modest beginnings - 200 to 500 acres of "management-ignited" fire per year, with sights set on 30,000 acres, and special emphasis on the Kern Canyon, one of a series of "chimneys" that efficiently channel air rising from the bone-dry foothills during fire season. A prescribed fire set early in the '80s significantly slowed the 15,000-acre Pierce fire in the canyon several years later, Rogers reports.

* In Yosemite, specialist Caroline Lansing reports that 75 percent of the acreage of that national park is considered to be in a prescribed natural fire zone: Lightning fires will be allowed to burn under conditions decided upon in advance, with fire specialists keeping close track of each fire's progress. Some 52,000 acres have thus been allowed to burn there over the past quarter-century. In addition, management-ignited fires on some 1,300 acres a year, mostly on the fuelly floor of Yosemite Valley, are set annually for defuelling ...

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Keywords: prescribed burning definition, prescribed burning benefits, prescribed burning pros and cons, prescribed burning meaning, prescribed burning near me, prescribed burning wa, prescribed burning equipment, prescribed burning training

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