Smokey the Bear has reminded campers for 75 years that “only you can prevent forest fires” but much of today’s wildfires are more catastrophic than ever, and that isn’t exactly your fault. While fire is a natural and necessary part of forests, fuels have accumulated from years of suppression and mismanagement.
Scientists have since agreed that prescribed burning of these fuels is one of the most effective tools against disastrous burns. A paper released Wednesday however, argues federal agencies are falling behind, and are not conducting enough prescribed fires to actually mitigate risks.
University of Idaho professor Crystal Kolden wrote the paper.
“In aggregate, we just aren’t doing enough. The challenge for fire managers is that they have very little incentive to do prescribed fire. Instead they have risk.”
Kolden says risks include escaped fires, such as the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico that led to over a billion dollars in damages. She argues there is a certain glory in fire suppression, much of which is monetized.
“The amount of overtime that people earn on wildfires is what draws… they don’t those opportunities with prescribed fires.”
Kolden found in her paper the only increase in prescribed fires occurred in the southeast United States, where much of the land is private or state controlled, as opposed to the federal lands of the West.
“Despite that challenge, they have been able to do a massive amount of prescribed burning.”
Due to dense forests full of vegetation, the South could burn quite easily given a short dry spell Kolden says, and predicts that —
“If for some reason tomorrow the government decided to shut down all prescribed burning in the southeast, we would see absolutely huge disastrous fires in the region in a very short amount of time.”
Lucky for the south, prescribed fire is still happening, and Kolden says it will take a lot of collaboration to bring that success West.