• Mon. Jan 17th, 2022


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The Meaning and History of a Controlled Burn

Good morning.

The California landscape has been shaped by intentional fires for millenniums. What European settlers in the 19th century took as a “natural” habitat was the result of what fire experts say was the deliberate burning of millions of acres of forests and chaparral every year by Native tribes.

Now, after four years of particularly destructive fires, there is broad consensus among experts and government officials that California should embrace Indigenous traditions and the notion that “good” fire is crucial to preventing the destructive power of megafires.

But a prescribed burn last week in Modoc County, in the far northeastern corner of the state, underlines the difficulties of using fire as a forest management tool.

“You’re talking about dozens of people and thousands of hours of planning,” said Ken Sandusky, the public affairs officer for the Modoc National Forest. “You have objectors’ time, and litigation time. You could get into the tens of thousands of hours to get to the point where you are running chain saws and putting fire on the ground.”

Before contact with Europeans, California tribes not only had thousands of years of burning tradition to guide them, but they also were free of the lawyers, paperwork, environmental impact assessments, and thicket of national and state regulations that forest managers face today.

Sandusky said the burn in Modoc last week, which covered 29 acres in the national forest, was possible only because of a decade of preparation that has allowed for several hundred acres to be burned a year. The controlled burn was done to protect the most vulnerable trees and clear out the fuels that create a more volatile fire.

Prescribed burning across the state has been curtailed this year by the dry conditions that make fires more dangerous to manage and control. Fire experts pointed to the Palisades Fire in western Los Angeles in recent days as a measure of the drought-stricken California landscape.

“We used to burn into June fairly often when I first got to the Modoc,” said Mandi Shoaf, a fuels specialist in the Modoc National Forest who has worked in the area for more than a decade. “Now we are lucky to get a window late April, early May before fire season really kicks off.”

Prescribed burns are often preceded by the mechanical removal of trees and brush. The wood is sold as boards or chips, helping to recover the cost of the operation. In Modoc, forest management helps preserve older Ponderosa pines, some of which are older than 200 years. The burning also promotes new growth, which serves as food for local elk and other wildlife.

Don Hankins, a fire expert who is working with California tribes to revive Indigenous burning practices, said caution and preparation were key to successful burns. The Cerro Grande Fire, a prescribed burn in New Mexico two decades ago that raged out of control and destroyed more than 200 homes, was a scarring experience for fire experts.

But Hankins and other experts argue that liability questions and bureaucracy have made prescribed burning too cumbersome in California.

“We overcomplicate things,” he said.

Compiled by Jonathan Wolfe

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